Charlottesville and environs make a delicious springboard for touring Virginia’s wine country. Some inspiration to get your engines started: a worldly menu from a chef who began his career in Washington and a farm-to-fork restaurant with unsurpassed views.
A background check on the Ivy Inn Restaurant in Charlottesville may tell you that the 41-year-old establishment was purchased in 1995 by Fairfax County native Angelo Vangelopoulos and his father, Thomas, a Greek immigrant, and that trout, sourced locally from a woman known as “the trout lady,” is one of the dishes you don’t want to miss.
But only in the good company of a regular might a first-time visitor learn about one of the best intermezzos around: a two-bite gyro built from ground lamb, house-made yogurt, aged feta cheese and fluffy pita bread. “My favorite dish in Charlottesville,” announces the discerning local sitting across from me when the nosh appears. Silence falls on the table as four of us contemplate the joy of soft meat, softer bread and the communion of fresh dill, coriander and garlic.
To eat at the Ivy Inn is to taste a bit of Washington’s past. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., Angelo Vangelopoulos, 44 this month, got his start at the late La Colline on Capitol Hill, where he learned the art of sauce-making. To this day, he still serves veal as he did then, with a morel cream sauce spiked with armagnac. Following a year of cooking in California, the chef returned to Washington and the late Galileo, where whole suckling pigs and lambs were broken down in the restaurant before such deconstruction became fashionable. Galileo is also where Vangelopoulos learned the trick to making gnocchi: Use just enough flour, but not too much, and don’t overwork the dough.
The menu nods to France, waves at Italy and does the South proud. Cue the hanger steak with chasseur sauce; and by all means, check out the chef’s ways with pasta. The Ivy Inn’s shrimp and grits, garnished with a crown of lacy buttermilk onion rings, are every bit as rich as the union at Vidalia in Washington. That trout, stuffed with herbs and cooked with the skin on, gets treated to a succotash that summons the season. Desserts run to old-fashioned crowd-pleasers, among them an intense chocolate pudding and lemon meringue icebox cake.
Papa Vangelopoulos no longer co-owns the Ivy Inn, but he still bakes the potato-herb ciabatta and raisin brioche that launch a meal in one of the restaurant’s four cozy dining rooms. The chef’s wife, Farrell, does double duty as his general manager.
Hailed by some of his peers as Charlottesville’s best chef, Angelo Vangelopoulos is surely one of the town’s most hospitable. Every Easter for the past four years, he has roasted a goat in the restaurant’s garden as a post-shift thank-you to his staff and their families. The party has grown from an initial 50 guests to 250 or so last year, because his peers in the industry started showing up for the feast. “We used to have leftovers,” jokes Vangelopoulos, whose attendees one holiday included José Andrés and his tribe.
P.S. Access to that gyro proves easier than it sounds. Not only does the kitchen serve the snack as an accessory to lamb chops, the chef says that he’s happy to offer it “to anyone who asks.” (And I will.)
Ivy Inn, 2244 Old Ivy Road; 434-977-1222; ivyinnrestaurant.com. Entrees, $25 to $36.
“Inside or out?” asks the sunny hostess at Farm Table.
She can barely finish the question before my companion and I simultaneously reply, “Out!”
If there’s a more sumptuous landing spot for lunch in Virginia’s wine country than the restaurant and tasting room at Pippin Hill Farm and Vineyards, I have yet to find it. An easy nine or so miles from Charlottesville, in North Garden, the three-year old attraction, designed by co-owner Dean Andrews to emulate a 19th-century clapboard farm house, unfolds amid six acres of grapes, a manicured lawn and burbling fountains.
From my stool on the stone veranda, trimmed with neat gravel walkways and a necklace of white lights, the Blue Ridge mountains feel close enough to touch — well, at least after a flight of the four red wines that Pippin makes.
“We must have 800 people taking pictures” when they reach the top of the lush property, which includes an event space called the Granary, Andrews says. “It’s an ahhhh moment.”
Although the facades and the vista are stiff competition, Bill Scatena, 27, who recently took over the kitchen reins from his sister and fellow chef Amalia, helps fill seats with a menu that wouldn’t taste out of place in Napa Valley. (A former cook at Keswick Hall in Charlottesville, Scatena is from the San Francisco Bay area.) A breezy California sensibility infuses his house-made agnolotti, tender stamps of pasta filled with sweet corn puree and served with shrimp, crisp and tasty after their brief dance with garlic and thyme in a cast-iron skillet.
As unlikely as they sound together, kielbasa and quinoa make a good match. Juicy pork sausage helps, as do ancient grains cooked in a broth zapped with lemongrass and ginger. An overlay of diced vegetables, cooked in a house-made curry paste, and a few edible flowers, plucked from Pippin’s garden, add zip and hue.
Chicken paté, dropped off in a Mason jar and as subtle as whipped cream, is best for the spread’s house-made pickles.
Elsewhere, cupcakes may be wearing out their welcome, but they’re a treat to see here, served three to a plate and incorporating some of the vineyard’s output. A reduction of merlot and fresh rosemary in the dark chocolate cake counters the sweetness of the frosting, which is drizzled with a light syrup of cabernet franc.
Spend even a little time at Pippin Hill, and it becomes clear that the owners, including Andrews’s wife, Lynn Easton, are forward thinkers who sweat the details. Three intimate tasting bars punctuate the stone veranda; the pouring site inside the airy dining room is paved with prized Alamo wood from Mexico. Poking around outdoors, a visitor will not be surprised to hear that the staff includes a full-time gardener. “We want to leave a light footprint,” Andrews says. The wooden structures, built following an old-fashioned post-and-beam method, use a minimum of metal, and the water animating the fountains is reclaimed from the rain.
The lone downside? Pippin Hill, which expects to host 55 weddings by year’s end, doesn’t do dinner in order to give private parties free rein of the property. Even so, its lunch hours are long, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.
Pippin Hill Farm, 5022 Plank Rd., North Garden, Va.; 434-202-8063;
pippinhillfarm.com. Sandwiches and small plates, $12 to $18.
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