Bari, the meticulously maintained restaurant that has lodged for 10 years in a 1915 brick two-story in Overton Square, is a refuge from the slings and arrows of commercial dining.
The food served here is elegant, relying on the integrity of its ingredients and preparation. And while the southeast Italian tradition that Bari embraces is somewhat austere, there also is a light and airy sense of confidence emanating from the kitchen.
You enter on Cooper and pass through — or linger in — a dark bar, the "enoteca," of minimal design. The atmosphere is relaxed and low-key, though the clientele may be high-profile — on a recent weekday night we saw Memphis Mayor A C Wharton at a table in the bar, and U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Julia Gibbons and her husband, Bill, Tennessee's Homeland Security commissioner, in the dining room.
Bartenders Brad Pitts and Mark Light have followers, as bartenders who like to create drinks with fresh ingredients should. On an oppressively hot night, when peaches and grapefruit and basil were being mixed and muddled into cocktails all around us, we found relief in "Larry's No. 2," red grapefruit vodka and fresh grapefruit with Prosecco.
The dining room, separated from the bar by a narrow interior threshold, is a contrast in style, with soft lighting and a soothing central fountain contained in an upright sheet of glass. The restaurant is named for the Italian city on the Adriatic Sea where the family of chef Jason Severs traces its roots. (If you go there and stay near the water, you'll wake up to the sound of fishermen slapping the rocks with fresh-caught squid.)
Bari serves calamari, but not the ubiquitous white circles obscured by dense batter and dipping sauce. The appetizer of calamari and whole baby octopus, tentacles intact, is grilled and served in a restrained roasted red pepper oil and thin parsley pesto, which you can mop up with the excellent crusty bread.
The "Olive Misto" honors a Mediterranean standard with the monster green, black and red olives of Cerignola in the Bari region. Three of us shared the firm and meaty olives, flavored with pepper flakes, along with an order of eggplant and pecorino fritters, which are always crisp outside, velvety inside.
Organize your meal to include all the menu categories — starter, salad, pasta, fish, dessert and cheese — and you'll find that two or three hours pass very easily (though at a price) at Bari. Among the salads, you'll find an enlightening contrast between the restaurant's grilled radicchio and endive, chopped warm wedges sweetened with a sprinkling of gorgonzola cheese, and the Lattuga, a Boston lettuce that balances soft and crunchy parts — goat cheese and hazelnuts — with sweet and sour parts of honey and grapefruit.
Bari defies expectations about Italian restaurants in Memphis, where tomato gravy dominates super-size plates of pasta, but tomatoes are certainly in play at the restaurant. The luscious tomato soup is an intensely red stew that arrives with a poached egg in the center. "It's not like Campbell's," our server said wryly when she delivered it.
Cherry tomatoes decked the top of a superbly marbled T-bone steak one night. And tomatoes are among the additions to the five pasta dishes on the menu. The handmade orecchiette has tomatoes, anchovies and rapini; the orzo has roasted tomatoes and crabmeat. But there is something perfectly well-rounded about the tomato-less Carbonara spaghetti, smoky bits of pancetta and Parmigiano-reggiano melded to the pasta with a fresh beaten egg. It's straightforward, it's brilliant, it's $9. Although the portions are demure by Memphis standards, if you've chosen wisely from the appetizers and salads, you can round out a satisfying meal with pasta.
But you really should have fish. Severs grills whole sardines and branzino, also known as European sea bass. The latter, a delicate white fish, is easily disengaged from the bone, the fennel and orange slices it's cooked with tucked under the skin. The seared scallops are mildly influenced by Sambuca, an anise-flavored Italian liqueur.
The kitchen is instinctively tuned to the aesthetic combination of ingredients. A flourless chocolate torte had a lovely strawberry sauce, but the restaurant's refined version of cake and ice cream — gingerbread with vanilla zabaglione (egg yolk alert!) gelato and caramel — is among its most highly evolved compositions. We took the advice on the menu and ordered the Felsina Vin Santo, an amber dessert wine with notes of cinnamon and honey.
The restaurant's menu of nearly 40 Italian cheeses should be cherished as a local treasure. (It's also good reading: One pecorino is "rubbed with honey & wrapped in hay"; another is "slightly smoky, hard, crumbly, aged in caves.") The extensive wine list is exclusively Italian as well.
The chef and his wife and co-owner, Rebecca Severs, intend to celebrate the restaurant's 10th anniversary in November with a week of food and drink specials. A "big bang" of a wine dinner is promised.
Bari Ristorante e Enoteca
Address: 22 S. Cooper
Hours: Opens nightly at 5. Bar open until midnight. 5-9 p.m. Sundays.
Reviewer’s choices: Grilled calamari, $10; eggplant fritters, $8; tomato soup, $8; grilled stuffed branzino, $22; seared scallops $20; gingerbread gelato, $7.
Alcohol: Excellent selection of cocktails and Italian wine.
Poor: Zero stars
Good: One star
Very Good: Two stars
Excellent: Three stars
Extraordinary: Four stars