Review: Winflo Osteria

Winflo Osteria
1315 W. Sixth St. 512-582-1027,
Hours: Lunch 11am-3pm Mon-Fri. Dinner 4-10pm Mon-Thu, 4-11pm Fri, 5-11pm Sat, 5-10pm Sun. Brunch 11am-3pm weekends.
Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5)
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 08.01.13
Lasagna showed up only recently on the dinner menu at Winflo Osteria, as if willed there from the lunch menu by a compulsion to give us a pasta-and-sauce baseline. There’s no baked ziti at this split-level bungalow under the shade trees on West Sixth. No manicotti, no buy-one-take-one-home ravioli. If there were, then you’d have another red-sauce joint, a Game of Thrones wedding caterer instead of a boutique Italian kitchen finishing pasta to order. But being a boutique osteria means nailing it every time, and Winflo is a game of hits and misses.
That lasagna is a summary of the sentiment. The noodles were cooked down to mush, making a seven-layer Italian casserole with taste but no texture, dry despite the shared Bolognese affections of creamy bechamel and a sharp marinara made bitter by too much time under the broiler ($8 lunch/$14 dinner).
By contrast, Winflo’s spaghetti carbonara can take its place among the city’s best ($9, lunch only). Parmigiano-reggiano cheese and fresh egg yolk clung to al dente pasta like they never wanted to leave such good company, made the richer by fat nuggets of pancetta. A coiled spring of a dish, playing to the spaghetti symphony.
The same spaghetti lay at the heart of a $16 dinner special tossed with pomodoro, mussels and shrimp ($16). With the clingy textural alchemy of pasta finished in a hot pan and shellfish cooked to their sweet and tender best, the dish was missing just one thing: the flavor to match the execution.
On the other hand, it wasn’t overspiced, and that’s where Winflo becomes a do-it-yourself project. Each table gets a quartet of finger bowls with strong grated cheese, red pepper flakes, salt and dried herbs. It’s like a high-performance tune-up kit to convert your production dinner from mass-appeal showroom model into a sweet custom ride. Except that I’m no mechanic, and I always have parts left over.
Such was the case with little rolled cocoons of pasta called cavatelli tossed with ground sausage, mushrooms and gorgonzola cream sauce ($15) as unassuming as a minivan. A well-appointed, beige minivan. Sharing space in that style-challenged minivan was a colorful but dull minestrone like a low-sodium national brand ($6) and a Caesar salad you could safely serve at a cafeteria ($6).
(ABOVE, clockwise from left: The interior is a tasteful blend of wood floors, upholstered seating, gables and glass. The redesign of the bungalow at 1315 W. Sixth St. was overseen by Jamie Chioco Chioco Design. Flatiron steak with polenta and Brussels Sprouts. Lasagna Bolognese, foreground, and fried polenta. BELOW: A Margherita pizza.)
If I’m too hard on these low-spark performers it’s because Winflo has style, and everything needs to keep up. It’s a classic cottage done in Geiger-counter green and gray outside, leading to an interior with polished wood floors, majestic gables, a glass wall of wine storage, upholstered white cameo chairs and a bar with a ceiling fixture like pearled stationery folded into an accordion fan with thin copper swingarms tipped with Edison bulbs. From that bar came fun drinks like a sweet-tart margarita variation made with the blood-orange liqueur Solerno and soda from the same fruit and a Sicilian sour that glowed like a frosted candle with Woodford Reserve and shimmering egg white ($9 each).
However convivial and — it should be said — packed to capacity the interior might be by the middle of the dinner hour, the decks outside double the wattage. Even in the late afternoon heat, a breeze turns the oak-shaded terraces into a summer retreat for a cold glass of sparkling pink lambrusco by Mionetto ($8) or a bottle of Sandrone barbera ($52) whose red velvet glide makes you believe you’re that smooth, too. The all-Italian list puts a variety of bottles in the $30-$40 sweet spot, including a Tommasi valpolicella with fruit up front and cedar in the back for $35. Winflo pours about 20 wines by the glass from $7-$12.
The robust crowds that seemed to swamp Winflo when it opened in January have stayed around for the deck life, drawn no doubt by shareable, drink-friendly plates like delicate rings-and-tentacles fried calamari ($12) and a misto board set with salami, bresaola, Italian cheeses and marinated artichokes and red peppers ($8/$10). In a city where meat and cheese boards are composed ever more like altars to the art of curing, this board looked more like a thick-fingered pile of deli slices. In an artistic counterpoint, a plate of lacy thin beef carpaccio was laid out like a blood-red anemone blossom with a heart of shimmering green arugula ($10). For its beauty, the meat was dry, almost chalky. At lunch, fried polenta was a solid performer, with sharp, toasted masonry edges and a creamy interior, served with thick red pepper marinara ($7).
So let’s talk about lunch. I waited seven minutes to be approached by a waiter, and 25 minutes into lunch, all I had was water to show for my time. By the time the first food came 10 minutes after that, I was worried about feeding the parking meter again.
Winflo has some on-site parking and a free valet service at night, but on this crowded stretch of West Sixth, you’re just as likely to be wrestling with meters on the side streets. The staff, by then several months into Winflo’s young life, still didn’t seem to know quite what to do next, a common malady for nighttime places that also do lunch. It’s tough to staff both shifts, but if you’re going to be open for lunch, then be open for lunch.
Dinner service was better, though the crowds were thicker. Congenial in that mom-and-pop way, brotherly in that bro way when you’re willing to let it be more informal. A server who knew little about the winelist made up for it by bringing samples, and all the waiters brought bread once we asked for it. But you need to ask for it.
(ABOVE, clockwise from left: Cavatelli pasta with sausage and gorgonzola cream sauce. The ceiling of the bar. A meat-and-cheese misto board and fried calamari. A Solerno margarita and a Sicilian sour. Pesce con puttanesca.)
I like bread with a stout meat-and-potatoes dish like porchetta, with a sauce that congealed like pink icing on a doughnut, if that doughnut were pork rolled in more pork, seared crispy brown around its fatty edges and tender throughout ($17). It was solidly executed but shy and reserved, with no big flavor — neither fattened pork nor wilted spinach nor shimmering sauce — stepping up to take command. That job was left to strong-willed rosemary potatoes at the base of the stack. The reserved style worked fine for a grilled beef flatiron, delivered in neat cross-sections with a rosy medium rare sear with buttery polenta and Brussels sprouts flavored well with pancetta ($19).
By then weary of the lighter hand, I was energized by a dish of redfish, seared graham-cracker tan with tender white meat just starting to flake ($21). To one side there were scales of sliced potato shingled like butter-crusted armor. To the other side was a tidal pool of living marinara brought to life by olives and capers, giving me control over how much I wanted it to flavor each bite. Finally, the power I’d been looking for.
As much as marinara is the red badge of encouragement for mainstream Italiannaires, pizza is its companion badge. Everyplace with food that ends in vowels is making pizza, right or wrong. But mostly wrong. At Winflo, the elements are in alignment for the right way: a passion for the Neapolitan-style crust, the kind that comes from a domed Forno Bravo wood-burning oven, with good ingredients like handmade mozzarella and San Marzano tomatoes.
Its baseline Margherita pie, with pools of mozzarella, precise brushes of tomatoes and whole fresh basil leaves, was a flag-waver, right down to a crust that crackled like fireworks before yielding to an air-fluffed chewy middle ($13). And while I liked the interplay of sweet onion marmalade, fat-slicked prosciutto and the peppered meadowy bite of arugula on Winflo’s prosciutto pizza ($17), the crust was as light as a saltine, like the heat had hollowed its insides and left only the shell.
It comes back to consistency. The sins that we might forgive a red-sauce joint or an East Sixth Street pizzeria must endure stronger atonement on this end of Sixth Street. The price Winflo pays for whetting our expectations with style and possibility.
(TOP (Clockwise from top left): Pizza with prosciutto, arugula and onion marmalade; spaghetti carbonara with egg and pancetta; pasta with mussels and shrimp; porchetta with spinach and rosemary potatoes. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)