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“Fine food, awful service”
Review of Ristorante Al Dente - CLOSED

Ristorante Al Dente
Price range: $5 - $10
Cuisines: Italian, Fusion
More restaurant details
Restaurant details
Dining options: Lunch, Delivery, Reservations
Description: Pick your pasta, pick your sauce. It's a simple concept, and one that Morocco native Karim Sellam hopes will bring more life to his Venetian-inspired restaurant in the Ix building. Introducing Al Dente Pasta Cafe, a classic Italian restaurant that's open for lunch, dinner, coffee breaks, and everything in between. Ristorante Al Dente, which Sellam originally opened on the Downtown Mall in 2003, started out as an upscale dining spot, with white linens, votives, and an extensive menu. The concept remained the same after he relocated to Ix in 2008, but after serving up elaborate, authentic Italian dishes for more than a decade, it's time for something different. "Fine dining, especially being authentic, is a challenge in a small town like Charlottesville," Sellam said. Although the restaurant had a loyal group of regulars, moving from the hustle and bustle of the Mall to the more remote location made it even more difficult to sustain the upscale model, and for years it felt like Ix might as well have been in Siberia. But now, as the 17-acre historic warehouse district is developing, attracting more retailers and an influx of local artists to the art park blooming on the property, Sellam decided it was time for something more approachable and affordable. The menu, which Sellam is in the process of transcribing onto the newly-installed black chalkboards above the bar, is about as simple as it gets: 14 pasta varieties (including a gluten-free option), 14 different sauces, plus a smattering of meat and vegetable add-ins. If spaghetti or gnocchi doesn't strike your fancy, there's also a selection of salads and panini sandwiches. A children's menu features kid-friendly pasta dishes, and freshly-brewed coffee and individually-wrapped snacks like granola bars and snack cakes are available all day. Transforming the upscale restaurant into a more casual space, with a long communal table, new light fixtures, and brightly-colored Spanish paintings on the wall was a gradual process. Al Dente is closed on Sundays and Mondays, so when he wasn't next door managing and cooking in his Moroccan restaurant Al Hamraa, Sellam was hauling furniture in and out, installing chalkboard paint, and fine-tuning the menu. Working seven days a week has always been the norm for him, Sellam said, so buckling down on his days off didn't faze him, especially since it meant Al Dente didn't have to close during the renovations. "I've always been that way," he said with a shrug. So, how did a Morocco native find himself serving up Italian food in Charlottesville? Sellam started out cooking traditional dishes from his home country, which he described as rich, complex, spice-heavy, and influenced by Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines. He spent a decade in Italy, cooking and managing kitchens in some of the most prestigious, upscale restaurants in Piazza San Marco, the public square of Venice where elaborate, multi-course meals can run upwards of $5,000. Then he moved to the United States in 2002 with his now-former wife. "When I went to Italy, I found Italian foods really simple. It's just based on simple ingredients, not like Moroccan cuisine," Sellam said. "You can learn it quick. It's like language-if you start from a hard language, other languages are easy. If you start with an easy language, other languages are hard." Because Italian cooking is simple to begin with, the change from fine to casual dining hasn't been much of a transition. "It's still the same quality of pasta and sauces," Sellam said. He noted that every sauce on the menu is made from a classic Italian recipe, with the exception of Alfredo, which is a much heavier, Americanized version of a classic cream sauce, and would never be found on a menu in Italy. Even the bar has been simplified. Sellam decorated it with a colorful display of cookbooks he's received as gifts, and pared down the beverage selections, eliminating the full bar with spirits and cocktails and serving only beer and wine. "When it comes to pasta, it should be wine," he said. "Always simple." Ristorante Al Dente officially became Al Dente Pasta Cafe last Tuesday, and it's open for business 11:30am-9pm Tuesday-Saturday. The restaurant's original menu, with items like black squid ink risotto and veal piccatine, is no longer available, but a little birdie told us that regulars just might be able to get their hands on old favorites if they catch the chef at the right time. Mix and match At Al Dente Pasta Cafe, choose from more than a dozen types of pastas and sauces for your perfect, personalized Italian combination. Pastas Penne, linguine, spaghetti, fusilli, farfalle, fettuccine, gluten-free penne, sweet potato gnocchi, carrot gnocchi, black squid ink gnocchi, arugula and spinach gnocchi, mushroom-filled crepes, butternut squash crepes, cheese ravioli Sauces Marinara, arrabbiata, Alfredo, boscaiola, mare e monte, primavera, puttanesca, amatriciana, Bolognese, polpette, vodka, frutti de mare
Reviewed June 20, 2011

We have eaten here with friends 4 times before the theater at Ix, a 5 minute walk away, because it's the only convenient decent restaurant. The quality of the food is generally excellent - if you can get it. We have always allowed 1.5 hrs for dinner. Once no food came at all and we left without eating. Most recently after telling the waiter many times about our schedule, he bought us our entrees 15 minutes before the curtain dropped, but then he forgot to return with our credit cards and by the time we got them we missed the beginning of the play. Both times only 3 tables in the restaurant were occupied. And the waiter doesn't seem to care in the least about the problem - he just says it's the chef and he has no control. The other 2 times were OK. What a shame to ruin a potentially fine dining experience in an attractive venue by treating customers so badly.

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Thank BunkyVA
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.
Reviews (27)
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14 - 18 of 27 reviews

Reviewed March 31, 2011

This restaurant, when on the downtown mall, was great. Since the move, it's going down hill. Early on, the Sunday brunch on the patio was lovely. The dinner experience is lacking in several ways. Soup was good, but main courses were mediocre...over cooked, underseasoned (veal and fish...the veal was tough and the fish was...fishy). Service was slow even though we were the only people in the restaurant for more than two hours (not a good sign). Wine list is also overpriced, but choices are adequate. Especially with its out-of-the-way location (GPS doesn't get you there because you have to zig-zag around a parking lot...it's not a straight shot down 2nd street), this restaurant MUST rely on word-of-mouth which means it must be terrific in every way to survive. C'mon al dente...you can do it!

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1  Thank experimentaltraveler
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.
Reviewed October 23, 2010

ATMOSPHERE is a bit cold, if Italian, and the ONE waiter for the whole restaurant went through all the formalities, but was NOT welcoming or friendly. The wait for ALL the food, even appetizers, was very LONG, the bread too, We told him we were hungry, and he made no effort, to bring us anything a bit quicker ( we're talking 2 HOURS for a meal), even more bread.
Food was good, when it finally arrived, if PRICEY, but by that time, the experience had been ruined, by such slow service and bad attitude by the waiter.

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Thank juan10_12
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.
Reviewed August 30, 2010

Not your typical complaint for a restaurant review, but both times we've dined here, the wait for our food was very long....and it felt even longer because of a lack of cushioning on the chairs. I'm not old, but anyone who sits for a 2-hour+ meal after a long day (be it work, travel, kids, whatever) needs some comfort beyond food.

The food is fantastic. No complaints there. The wines are complicated to order. Not a lot of mid-range prices or wines by the glass, and no descriptions of the wines can be found. You must rely on your waiter for assistance there. The owner doesn't drink, so I'm not quite sure who orders the wines they serve.

The ambiance is very nice. I love the music, and the rustic charm. One waiter, in particular, who served us both times is knowledgeable about the food and wine, and is gregarious, witty, and quite charismatic (not to mention easy on the eyes), but I believe he is stretched too thin between doing kitchen tasks, hosting, and waiting on tables. Even when they aren't that busy, the wait for food was too long.

All that said, come when you have some leisure time to enjoy the tasty food. Don't come with kids, unless you can sit outside, and I heard they are planning on expanding their outdoor seating.

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Thank TraceyDanner
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.
Reviewed February 24, 2009

I have read the previous reviews and felt compelled to write something new. My husband and I have had two wonderful meals here and were treated like special guests each time. We enjoyed the ambience which was great for intimate dining. The Tuscan theme has soft light, interesting paint treatments and calming colors which transported us out of town for a short while. The dinners were excellent tasting, great texture, cooked right with a perfect presentation. We found nothing to complain about. We have eaten at almost all the restaurants in town and have several favorites including Al dente. The choices of entrees suited us fine because we know what to expect. We are going back tonight.

3  Thank katharinehannan
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.

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