New on the scene

Jamie Malone and Erik Anderson, consultant chefs at Scena Tavern. Credit: Photo by Michelle Bruch

Scena Tavern
2943 Girard Ave. S.

Scena, the executive summary: Come for the credentials, stay for the food.

Restaurateurs agree that dining = theater. (Otherwise, might as well stay home and munch popcorn in front of the tube.) Setting the stage called Scena, designers Smart + Associates dress the room in soft hues below a scalloped mezzanine. The set includes a circular bar, plus another bar expressly for crudo (crudi, if you took my community-ed Italian class)— for the next few months the raw craze endures, anyway—endowed with its separate cocktail list. Spacious, conversation-friendly tables join the diner stools serving as front-row seats for the drama unfolding in the kitchen.

And who was plotting the outcome on the night of a recent visit? Top talent: consulting chef Erik Anderson (Sea Change, Nashville’s elite Catbird Seat, among others), while everyone’s favorite front guy Bill Summerville (who was last seen …. where? Spoon and Stable?) delivered our amuse—a huge plate centered with a tasty micro-speck of fish. Bill’s also the force behind the intriguing, mostly-Italian wine offerings. Oh, and what’s this? The city’s first directory of gin—two pages of tiny, phone-book type. (Does this spell the demise of Bourbon?)

Anyway. The site is almost joined at the hip with Coup d’Etat, sharing, from the look of it, the same aspirational-diner demographic. And it’s a mere block from Parella, another recent Italian startup. What’s different about Scena’s food thrust, however, is apparent in the site’s full name: Scena Tavern (It’s run by the Green Mill guys)—Italian fare, sorta, with no big pronouncements about authenticity. Apps ($9–$16) favor American ham, for instance, not prosciutto, along with a Caesar-type salad modestly labeled “romaine.”

Beyond that, a quintet of piadini ($11–$16)—pizza-by-another-name creations pulled from the fire by a wooden paddle supporting a burly, wave-rimmed, chewy and thoroughly enjoyable crust—ours spangled with earthy wild mushrooms caught in molten talelggio—lots of it!—sluiced with honey. That unexpected touch of sweetness grows on you, helping the ultra-fatty cheese (no complaints) draw you in for One. More. Bite.

But time to focus on our real mission, the house-made pasta ($10–$16), starting with the carbonara—interesting, for sure, but not the dream dish of Roman visits (or stateside lookalikes): needs more unctuous cream, more eggy richness, and a return of pancetta rather than the experiment with cubes of mortadella sausage. Next up, a feast of robust bucatini noodles spiked with peppery ‘nduja sausage, garlic and herbed breadcrumbs—served with a glowing egg yolk atop, ready to seduce your palate. It’s a grand dish.

Entrees follow, for those who can. Among the six choices (short rib, chicken, pork, swordfish and a sticker-shock steak), we went for the nod to the Iron Range ($16), a billiard-size meatball, beefy and tasty as all get-out, rising from a sea of “Sunday gravy” says the menu (the name for tomato sauce if your nonna comes from Hibbing): a bit salty, also sweet and rich with tomato. The whole combo is ladled over creamy, ultra-wonderful polenta.

No dessert for us, we demurred—until spotting zeppole on the short, forget-it list:  doughnuts the size of tennis balls lightened (it’s a relative term) and moistened with ricotta, served with a dish of honey for dipping. How do you say ‘yum’ in Italian? I’ll have to ask my teacher.