The big review: Fratelli Lyon ***

A cheese plate at Fratelli Lyon. Photo: Simon Hare.
A cheese plate at Fratelli Lyon. Photo: Simon Hare.

I’ve long been suspicious of manifestos, so when I arrived at the much-talked-about Fratelli Lyon, I was put off by the menu’s “I nostro manifesto” stating that, among other honorable goals, “our mission . . . is to distance ourselves from purveyors of heavily marketed and mass produced food stuffs and their sources — focusing on using ingredients with integrity and history.”

Hear, hear. I’ve been onboard with the Slow Food movement since the ’90s. But I still believe in letting food speak for itself. At Ken Lyon’s sleek and stunning new eatery, it often purrs but sometimes screams or mumbles.

The setting is the rarefied new Italian design store Driade, where a wooden spice box sells for more than $200. The restaurant is splayed out over two rooms with a long stainless steel bar and a few tables in a walled courtyard. The combination of earnest food and sexy housewares conjure the kind of urban energy that distinguishes the recently reinvented Design District from the rest of this crazy town.

The huge, hard-to-navigate menu (70 or 80 items plus daily specials) is filled with lovely artisanal products and can be mined for standout dishes. But first, order an aperitif to steady your nerves. When the loft-like space is crowded, as it usually is, it is disconcertingly loud.

Like the menu, the excellent, all-Italian wine list spans the boot from calf to toe with lovely selections from Tuscany, Sardinia, Puglia and points between. Bargains, for just over double retail, include a refreshing $30 rosé from New York restaurateurs Joe and Lidia Bastianich and a heady, $55 1999 Bricco Manzoni. The designated driver can choose from a super list of house-made sodas including a no-alcohol Campari and soda.

Though tempting, I can’t recommend the “esplosione of antipasti,” a three-tier tower of more meats, cheeses and olives than a family of five could eat and have room for a primo or let alone a secondo piatto. Still, much of the high-quality salami is delightful, as is the crusty, golden bread and accompanying peppery olive oil.

Pastas are uniformly al dente but sometimes out of balance and over-salted. Portions, in utterly

un-Italian fashion, are huge, and half-portions are not available.

The carbonara was loaded with so much crispy pancetta it almost seemed like a pork dish garnished with pasta, and the sauce had none of the requisite luscious egg yolk. A deep, dark, veal Bolognese with perfectly rendered maccheroni was flavorful, and a ricotta-filled ravioli in brown butter and sage sauce was nicely done.

My favorite salad, the tre colore (here called the Driade), was a triumph of freshness, with the baby leaves of radicchio, chicory and arugula lightly dressed. The fennel, celery, arugula and shaved Parmigiano in a whisper of lemon and oil wooed me, too.

The tasty but overly cheesy torta melanzane alla napoletana with gently grilled baby tomatoes is a decadent treat. Other classics, like the vitello tonnato with perky capers and the creamy risotto milanese, were serviceable but not memorable. Pizza was tasty, though the flimsy crust was soggy once loaded with mozzarella and tomatoes.

Desserts, including a deconstructed tiramisu and a not-too-sweet polenta cake with slivered almonds and lemon curd, tend to be pretty fantastic. Servers were polite, well-intentioned and friendly, though insufficiently schooled in Italian cuisine.

Soon, we trust, the wait staff and kitchen will hit their groove, weeding out unslakeably salty dishes and right-sizing unfathomably large portions. In the meantime, Lyon has one thing down pat: The infectious joy of good food that even a devoted comrade couldn’t miss.

Fratelli Lyon/Driade, 4141 NE Second Ave., Design District; 305-572-2901; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight Friday and Saturday; antipasti $7-$14, sides $8, pastas $12-$19, entrees $14-$28, desserts $7-$10

FYI: Plentiful metered street parking. Wine and beer only. Reservations encouraged for weekends. AX, DS, MC, PC, VS.

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Published: 7/08