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Delicate dance

Southern Italian fare takes the stage on Cherry Street



Red wine-marinated octopus with house-made sausage at Prossimo.

Greg Bollinger

Though Italy is roughly the size of California, it contains a multitude of gastronomic identities. Butters, creamy sauces and robust meaty entrees fill bellies and menus in northern cities like Milan and Parma. Palates take a more Mediterranean turn in the south, inspiring lighter and brighter dishes, laden with seafood, olive oils and rustic tomato sauces. American-Italian restaurants trend toward the heavier-handed fare, but Prossimo—the newest addition to the Cherry Street topography—is putting southern Italian fare on full theatrical display. 

The menu is separated into what would be traditional Italian course order. In the Aperitivo column, the most audacious option is the table-side fresh mozzarella, something you’ve likely not heard of because, well, it’s not something that is really done … anywhere. This isn’t Japanese-steakhouse level of theatrics, but the process does require a brave soul to dunk their hands into boiling water. 

A bubbly young woman arrives to our table with a cart, a metal bowl of steaming water and other accoutrement. She succinctly and confidently explains the history of mozzarella, the cheese-making process and ingredients while she does her work. Wearing heat-protective gloves, she places a pile of white goo into the hot water. She sculpts and tames the stringy mess into a smooth white glistening globe. She coaxes the bubble of cheese into two fist-sized orbs and places them into a dish, drizzles with a healthy glug of primo olive oil, then sprinkles with coarse salt. 

This dish was the perfect opening salvo for what would be an evening draped in nuance, high-end ingredients and high-touch service.

The restaurant space has two dining areas—the side lovingly referred to as Prossima, translated as “the girl next door,” is billed as a Prosecco bar. The cocktail menu has a mix of dainty mixed beverages, a small beer selection, and a nice roster of bubbles, wines and spirits. Prossima is replete with ballerina pink pin-tucked divans near a large picture window coordinated with framed images of Italian sexpot and patron goddess of pasta, Sophia Loren. The through-line of the space is the slate gray walls, offset by swanky chandeliers and matte black banquettes which round the corner into the Prossimo space, a mirror image of Prossima minus the bar and kitschy glitz. 

The Prossimo experience lends itself well to a larger party, though no more than six guests at a time per booking parameters. The menu doesn’t outright say family-style is recommended, but when dining Italian, perhaps it is implied. 

The pasta courses were an edification on al dente, from chunky orecchiette coated in fiery vodka sauce, to blankets of pappardelle swimming in lavish Bolognese. But the simplest pasta offering was perhaps the most impressive, and not just for the shock and awe from the service. The tableside Il Vero Alfredo summons the same cart and affable server, but this time she has a large wheel of authentic Parmigiano Reggiano 
in tow. 

The server pours a sizeable portion of brandy in the hollowed-out wheel of cheese and sets it aflame with a handheld torch. Once properly mollified, she pours ringlets of fresh fettucine noodles into the boozy cheese pond, twisting and pulling the noodles like strings of 
a marionette. 

With a final flick of her wrist, our maestro places the formidable nest of noodles onto a plate. A traditional butter and cream-laden alfredo this is not. The nutty essence of the cheese gets a dose of complexity with the simmered sweetness of the reduced brandy. The noodles themselves were the perfect texture for this treatment— just enough chew to hold up to the twists and turns, yet velvety and supple enough for optimal Lady and the Tramp-style noodle slurps. 

Main courses feature a bounty of fresh seafood, along with a few selections from the land. The expertly-prepared octopus with house-made sausage marinated in red wine, paired with roasted potatoes with bits of crusty parm is a bold option. The giant prawn with jalapeno pesto is perhaps the most intriguing, and this specimen was at the top of its weight division. The giant prawn curls around the expanse of the white plate, the roseate shell a backdrop to verdant pesto and microgreens. Our server allows us to feast with our eyes before de-shelling the head-on Madagascar prawn for the table. Though alluring, the jalapeno pesto overwhelmed the quiet demeanor of the shellfish, seemingly breaking the rules of subtlety in southern cuisine. The prawn itself possessed understated brininess, but the texture was more sinewy than supple. 

The service was the highlight of Prossimo. The team was balletic, arriving when needed, adding extra touches when necessary and without unnecessary fuss. The rigor with which Prossimo aligns with authenticity is remarkable, and the experience itself is sure to delight. Open Wednesday through Sunday starting at 5 p.m., the intimate space only accommodates 40 guests at a time, and the average table turn is two hours, so reservations are absolutely recommended and can easily be made through Open Table. 

 

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