Fed Man 55: Asti (19)

Mike Sutter’s Top 55 Austin Restaurants
No. 19: Asti
408-C E. 43rd St. 512-451-1218, www.astiaustin.com.
Hours: Lunch 11am-5pm Mon-Fri. Dinner 5-10pm Mon-Thu, 5-11pm Fri-Sat. Closed Sun.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 11.19.12
Emmett and Lisa Fox are the branch of restaurant royalty behind the Spanish-influenced bistro Fino and the Italian trattoria Asti. But like Prince Andrew, the Foxes are the royals you don’t hear as much about. Maybe when they’re doing another of their charity projects or saying goodbye to chefs like John Bates or Jason Donoho or hotshot bartender Bill Norris. But that’s the nature of the neighborhood restaurateur: legends in their own back yards. There’s nothing wrong with being the toast of Hyde Park, but Asti deserves recognition far beyond its borders.
Pizza like this, for example, shouldn’t be flying under the radar that tracks only the latest pies. Asti’s pizza bianca leans on a crust with an honest tension between stretch and crackle, with good collarbones. Elevated on a wire pedestal at the table, its  truffle aroma had less distance to travel. Green sage leaves lay scattered like an early fall. The combined effect was both earth earth and crust, punctuated by mozzarella and fontina cheeses. ($11)
The skin on a roasted chicken was all mahogany bark, thick and crisp, its texture coming at the expense of meat cooked a shade too long — a sacrifice that worked, because the dish drew its moisture instead from a layer of sweet and mild sun-dried tomato pesto. Even a side of potatoes showed personality, with some of it left in quarters for texture, the rest smoothly mashed to convey a cargo of goat cheese. ($18)
Maybe a salad with two thin slices of cantaloupe scored on the grill with a few overly dressed leaves of baby Romaine was overpriced at $10. But the cantaloupe stayed cool and refreshing at its core, and there was enough paper-thin prosciutto to get a bite with every forkful. Quantity isn’t the thing here. At dessert, the best rewards came in small bites of mint gelato and praline caramel gelato. Delicate scoops, they were melting even as they came to the table, arguing for fast work. The praline came off like the fractured inside of a butter toffee bar, salty, sweet and nutty, while the other drew its cool breeze from real mint leaves. ($5 for one scoop, $9 for two)
Ordering rigatoni Amatriciana was our idea, but it was the waitress who insisted we add housemade Italian sausage to the dish’s corrugated tubes of pasta and its loose tomato sauce. The sausage was crumbled, cooked to a tender high-test spice. Keep in mind that the Amatriciana already carried nuggets of guanciale, sausage’s more civilized cousin, a variation on bacon that’s given up smoking and gone leaner for it. Its flavor got lost in the more aggressive sausage, but the guanciale added its fatty measure behind the scenes for a lusher finish. ($14 plus $3 to add sausage)
Service at Asti was an exercise in circulation, the black-clad staff wound up like music boxes with contact of some kind every time we needed it: for water, for bread, for an empty dish, for any sign we were ready for the next course. They even delivered a sheet cake to the birthday grownup girl at the table next to us. There’s a choreography to good service, rituals that work for both sides of the table: eye contact, manners, questions and answers, fresh plates and forks. Asti executes that in a space that’s spare and modern in the windowed front, more boardroom formal in the back, with a long row of red swivel diner stools along the open kitchen. I watched the expediter check dishes as they came off the line, tidying up plates, checking aromas. Attention to detail that carried all the way to the table.
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)
Mike Sutter’s Fed Man 55: Austin’s Best Restaurants