- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 23, 2003

The sky is blue and the sun is shining as we drive through the rolling Virginia countryside on a beautiful early autumn day. Just 20 miles northeast of Charlottesville, we come upon Barboursville Vineyards, a picture-postcard sight, with the vines along the road leading to the winery decorated with red rosebushes — once the early warning for phylloxera because the bugs get to the roses before they reach the grape stock, but now merely decorative.

Palladio, the vineyard restaurant, sits at the top of the hill. Named for the famed Renaissance architect, Palladio has little to do with its namesake. It’s a country-style Italian restaurant with a cozy dining room and a terrace with French (not Palladian) doors, through which the autumn breezes waft onto the six or seven tables inside.

The food, prepared by the American executive chef Melissa Close, is inspired by Italy, and it is excellent. She transforms Virginia’s bounty with imagination. Lunch begins with a complimentary glass of Barboursville brut sparkling wine — just enough to put you in the right mood for what follows.

The menu, which changes monthly, is Italian-style — that is, with a separate farinaceouscourse. Each of the four courses offers approximately five choices, and the meal is priced according to the number of courses.

One first course is of beautifully ripe fresh figs filled with Gorgonzola cheese, lightly baked and served with Parma ham. It’s a delightful combination and a refreshing change from the usual melon or mozzarella accompaniments to prosciutto.

The foie gras terrine served with fresh peach compote, unfortunately, was not available at a recent lunch. A shrimp salad made the least interesting of the dishes we tried — a small mound of chopped shrimp and crunchy vegetables lightly dressed with a good vinaigrette. Pleasant, but bland.

The pasta dishes are outstanding. Minestrone, redolent with vegetables and strips of house-made pasta, tastes of a summer garden in a rich broth. It’s a fragrant, fresh soup, light and tasty and just right for the cool days of autumn.

Another star is the crab and mascarpone ravioli in a creamy tarragon-lemon sauce. Five small ravioli rounds filled with fresh crab, with the cheese as a binding, melt in the mouth. The dish is very pretty with the white mounds sauced in pale, delicate yellow.

Tagliolini in a wild mushroom and thyme sauce are as good as any prepared in Tuscany. The pasta is fresh, served al dente, and the mushrooms neither overwhelm nor underplay the pasta. It’s particularly excellent for those with a taste for mushrooms.

Main courses, or secondi piatti, are a nice mix of fish and meat. Duck breast, pan-roasted and served on the rare side, is fork-tender and delicious. The kitchen has taken the trouble to remove the layer of fat usually served with the meat. The duck comes with a serving of creamy corn polenta and a fig-and-port wine sauce. It’s perfectly conceived and prepared.

Seared pork loin is a generous serving of two slices of tender meat with a barley cake and Swiss chard. The bitter vegetable contrasts well with the mild pork; it’s a good and substantial combination.

The vegetarian offering is a strudel filled with wild mushrooms and goat cheese with a coulis of red pepper and arugula. The strudel came to the table lukewarm — it would have been better hot. It’s a fine light lunch, subtle and mild.

Fish is offered as a pan-seared red snapper with a sweet-potato puree. Grilled bison, served rare or medium rare, is the red meat alternative to beef. Wilted spinach and a potato-turnip gratin are served on the side.

Desserts are every bit as delicious as the early courses. A tiramisu, climbing up into a small tower, is divine, as light and airy as a cloud. You can’t go wrong, either, with a chocolate souffle or with crepes filled with lemon-honey cream and berries.

Miss Close not only knows how to cook, but she has an eye for presentation and for combining her dishes with interesting and appropriate accompaniments. Palladio offers country food, but with city know-how, as well as a fine blend of the Old and New Worlds.

Barboursville makes several excellent wines under the direction of winemaker Luca Paschina. We ordered a 1999 Cabernet Franc to go with our meal. It’s a sturdy, rustic wine, much like an Italian Barbera. All of the vineyard’s offerings can be ordered by the bottle at prices a bit dearer than at the retail shop adjoining the restaurant.

Barboursville has been owned since its inception in 1976 by Gianni and Silvana Zonin. Mr. Zonin’s family has been in the wine business in Italy’s Veneto region since 1821 — a region boasting several beautiful Palladian villas. Although the Zonins live in Italy, they make frequent trips to their Virginia property.

The property, by the way, is just right for an after-lunch stroll. On the grounds are the ruins of a brick house designed by Thomas Jefferson for James Barbour, a governor and later a U.S. senator, and built in 1822. The house burned on Christmas Day 1884, but the substantial ruins are fascinating, and it doesn’t take much imagination to feel the presence of the ghosts of Christmases past. The ruins are used as a backdrop for the Virginia Opera Company’s August production and August weekend Shakespeare performances. It’s a romantic spot for a wedding, too. Performers from the Virginia Opera entertain guests at the guest-chef dinners inside the restaurant in the autumn.

A visit to Barboursville is a reminder of why the English loved Virginia, and you’ll be reminded of why Americans love Italy.

RESTAURANT: Palladio, Barboursville, Va., near the intersection of Routes 33 and 678; 540/832-3824; directions on the Internet at barboursvillewine.com or by phone)

HOURS: Lunch noon to 3 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday; dinner 7 to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday

PRICES: Lunch, two courses $25, three courses $32, four courses $38 (paired with wine $32, $42 and $51, respectively); dinner, four courses only, $54 ($75 paired with wine)

CREDIT CARDS: Visa and MasterCard

PARKING: Ample free parking available

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

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