When Asiagos opened its second location more than a decade ago, Italian food was booming in Downtown Boise. Since then, several Italian bistros shuttered their Downtown operations. Ginos moved west to Meridian, and the only new non-pizza Italian restaurant is from a Chain That Shall Not Be Named.
Of the two Asiagos, the Downtown location was the one that survived, and it has done so by not digging in its heels. While the fresh pasta continues to be an expected strength, the menu has migrated from its American-Italian nest to incorporate more international ingredients. On recent visits, the risks taken by chef Floyd Loomis on less traditional dishes largely paid off.
The dining room wears a traditional Italian costume, with barrels and vines and early 20th-century poster art on the brick walls. At the back of a separate space, with a buttery-yellow curved ceiling and sliding doors that suggest it could be closed off for banquets, the wall is filled with an attractive display of upright bottles of wine from the extensive list. There is a patio, but that is better left for spring or fall than now.
As it always has, a meal at Asiagos begins with freshly baked, nutty brown bread set right on the butcher paper tablecloth, served with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and shreds of Asiago cheese. This bread, the from-scratch pasta, and the desserts are the work of pastry chef Jason Morgan. The bread is complimentary, but I would pay for it. It is that good.
Saving room can be a challenge if you attempt to eat a multi-course meal. A caprese insalata ($9.95), a mostly traditional tomato-basil-mozzarella salad on crisp baby arugula with balsamic reduction and threads of lemon zest from the daily fresh sheet was plenty for me and my wife to split. I wanted the tomatoes to be the star, but they refused. Here though, the mozzarella was cold-smoked in-house, which made the entire dish.
On another visit, we encountered the down side of this kind of tinkering: an order of crab cakes ($10.95) was in the midst of a recipe revision, and the result was impossible to pick up without falling apart and seemed to be mostly nubs of bread.
While our coolly professional server and it should be said, service has universally been good explained that they were actually using better and more crab in this version, we didnt love paying for the experiment.
Soups ($4.95) change often and are also listed on the fresh sheet, except for the regular-menu minestrone, which is a thick and stewy version with just-cooked shell pasta dropped in before serving. I preferred a recent cream of asparagus soup with caraway, tasty if a little thin, and perhaps scant for five bucks.
Most interesting was Asiagos take on white gazpacho: here instead of the traditional almonds, bread and grapes, this was instead a chilled vegetable-stock broth, with tiny diced cucumber, bell pepper, tomato and bits of garlic, with a languid sprig of cilantro.
Not anything in the universe of what I expected this seemed to instead belong in a tall glass, with vodka but refreshing on a blazing summer day.
The menu features a quite good Caesar ($3.95, $2 more for anchovies), nicely dressed, with more of that delicious Asiago cheese.
In winter, this kind of menu is easy: You want to have the pasta here. When its cold, we have enjoyed the gnocchi in gorgonzola cream and the Vesuvio spicy-linguine.
Recently, the Mediterranean Avezzano ($16.95) with leg of lamb, jammy eggplant caponata, olive-oil streaked spinach fettuccine, feta and basil was terrific and matched the season. But the Rosarno essentially chicken parmesan on fettuccine alfredo was less than the sum of its ingredients and too heavy on a hot day, though of course that was our own doing. In the chickens breading, any trace of the gremolata is lost.
The best entree we tried was the least strictly Italian: the ginger-lime shrimp with red curry risotto ($23.95) is loaded with seafood and vegetables, with a perfectly balanced heat level.
The shrimp are flayed open, charred black, and huge. Which brings me to a last point: This dish, like the pastas, is absolutely colossal. There was easily a quart of risotto on the plate, which, according to nutrition standards, would serve eight people. I have no issue with the price point but it would be nice to have a smaller portion available.
The reason is that there is so much else on the menu that I want to eat. Our fullness has necessitated getting dessert to go it has been too good to pass up.
The tiramisu is a well-made version, again gargantuan. Even better was the ancho-chili-flavored dark chocolate brownie, with ice cream and chipotle ganache. The heat is just right, rounding out the flavors, making the chocolate somehow even richer. Once more, a mere step off the traditional path was a risk well rewarded.
Email Alex Kiesig: email@example.com