I cannot remember the last time I got to hang out with my good friend Carlos Danger. It’s been months since we grabbed a bite and even longer since we held court for a food review. I was elated when I got the call that he was in town, so I knew it was time to fasten my seat belt. After all, these opportunities don’t come around all the time. Tonight was a special night, my treat.
The little fellow was dying to go to Via Emilia. It dawned on me that in my many years of writing for Lagniappe, I’ve never once had the opportunity to review the Old Shell Road jewel just across from the USA campus. I’ve eaten there a couple of times, but never in an official capacity. It’s very unfortunate I haven’t visited more often.
Via Emilia is a slick little locals joint that runs like a well-oiled machine with chef/owner/operator Chatman Ellis at the helm. The place is small. By small I mean very small. The dining room isn’t much larger than my own dining room. The kitchen is tiny. But the plates and portions are large and the flavor is gigantic. This is a place where repeat customers squeeze in and argue over which dish is best. I dig a place like this.
A large chalkboard menu gives you an at-a-glance look at the specials, and the wine list isn’t the smallest you’ll ever see. I began with a glass of Chianti ($7.90) while Carlos chose a pinot noir ($9.50) as we eyeballed the appetizer board. Carlos asked about a Gala apple salad with pecans, feta and apples, but it must have been the choice of all who came before us. They were out. I quickly changed gears to the polpetini ($8.95). That’s a fancy way to say “meatballs and red sauce.” They were deserving of their name. These were some of my favorite meatballs as far back as I can remember. My dining companion agreed.
Carlos requested the roasted artichoke hearts ($8.92). I’m someone who would put artichoke hearts a little further down my list of appetizers, but these were delicious. Here we were with two plates going back squeaky clean. That is a good sign.
We’d heard from several people how good the eggplant dish is at Via Emilia. When you’re staring at a chalkboard sporting dishes such as Bolognese lasagna, pork saltimbocca, steaks and veal piccata, you’re faced with a tough choice. Carlos was steadfast in his decision to have the Eggplant Emilia ($15.95). The eggplant was breaded and fried, layered with melted mozzarella on a bed of pasta and topped with shrimp and tomato cream sauce. He guarded his plate with a knife in his free hand and never offered a bite. I’m guessing he enjoyed it.
I couldn’t resist the fresh catch. On that evening it was yellow tail grouper ($27.95), as I switched to a sauvignon blanc ($8.25). I could tell why this was one of the more expensive things on the menu. The pan-fried fish was served over pasta with a pesto cream sauce that was divine. That’s not all. It was topped with sautéed crab claws. Out of spite I did not offer Mr. Danger any. I couldn’t stop eating, and before I knew it the last morsel was gone.
The portions here are worth mentioning. You will not go away hungry, I don’t care who you are. You can imagine the look on my face when the waiter asked if we saved room for dessert. Ultimately I listened to his routine and heard a couple of things that interested me, mainly some kind of ravioli, but knew they would not handle the car ride home. For dessert on the go it had to be tiramisu ($6.95). I have no problems with my choice.
It was a good night all the way around. Here’s the skinny: The place is very small but has a certain charm to it. It’s very dimly lit and romantic enough for those on a proper date, though I didn’t want Carlos to get the wrong idea. In certain seats you may have trouble seeing exactly what you’re consuming, but you can trust them. Everything we got was from very good to great. The parking lot is also pretty small and can be a trick to navigate in larger cars.
On our way out we noticed an outdoor courtyard filling up with people. I could definitely see the courtyard being a huge attribute as we head into the cooler months. I could imagine enjoying a couple glasses of wine and a hearty lasagna alfresco.
I shouldn’t say I was surprised at how good the food was at Via Emilia. I never had anything but fond memories of the restaurant, but let’s just say I was reminded how great it actually is. I promise to not be such a stranger and won’t wait until Mr. Danger is in town for my next visit. I should say I’m very happy I let him pick the restaurant this time. Good call, Carlos. Good call.
5901 Old Shell Road
Mobile, AL 36608