Il Palio emphasizes treating their guests like family. Upon arrival, every guest of The Siena Hotel is greeted with a bag of rugelach cookies, buttery dough wrapped around a cinnamon sugar and walnut filling, with an accompanying recipe card that looks like it was plucked straight from your grandma’s cookbook. This treatment doesn’t stop with just guests, the entire staff of Il Palio feels like family.
Following Chef Teddy Diggs’ departure to start his own Roman-style pizza restaurant, Coronato, in Carrboro, in walked a familiar face. Former Executive Chef Adam Rose is back in the Kitchen at Il Palio, Chapel Hill’s finest Italian dining destination which he ran from 2007 to 2013, and has been welcomed with open arms. Il Palio has consistently been awarded Four Diamonds by AAA and has remained an elegantly delicious staple of Chapel Hill thanks to Chefs Rose and Diggs’ hard work.
To celebrate Chef Rose’s return, I enjoyed a lovely evening at Il Palio beginning with Aperol Spritz cocktails and various crostini small bites around a crackling fire on the patio. After the glasses were empty, we were seated inside for a special dinner curated by Chef Rose himself. While getting situated, we snacked on antipasto plates, complete with salumi, mortadella, fresh mozzarella di bufala, marinated artichokes, and smoky grilled vegetables.
The first course--cacciucco, a tomato-based fish stew native to Tuscany—came out steaming and presented beautifully. Traditionally, the hearty stew is accompanied with a broth, but Chef Rose’s twist comes with a thick garlicky red chili and tomato sauce lining the bowl. Atop the sauce floats a grilled piece of toast, the perfect vessel for a seared scallops, shrimp, calamari, and mussels. An excellent ode to rustic Italian cooking and fresh seafood.
Up next came my favorite dishes—the two pastas. First, butternut squash ravioli. Flawlessly executed—creamy butternut squash and nutmeggy mascarpone filled ravioli, with crispy bacon-like shiitake mushrooms, sage, and brown butter balsamic vinaigrette. A sprinkling of crushed amaretti cookies created the perfect textured bite. Creamy, crunchy, sweet, tangy. To complete the harmonious balance of sweet and savory, Chef Rose presented duck ragù paccheri pasta, explaining that paccheri pasta is derived from the word slap in Italian, ‘una pacca,’ because of the slap-like noise the pasta makes when sauce is poured over it. The smooth, ribbon-like tubes of pasta carried melt-in-your-mouth tender duck ragù, taggiasca olives, and sofrito. Shaved grana padano and crispy rosemary needles scattered the dish, offering a salty, herby bite.
Already slowing down, we prepared for the entrada from the wood-fired grill—octopus and steak—and contorni of olive oil mashed potatoes and brussel sprouts. Two years ago, I fell in love with wood-grilled octopus thanks to Il Palio’s incredible rendition, and I was pleased to find out that it's just as fantastic now as it was then. Smoky, crispy octopus curled over a bed of white bean, rich squid ink puree, peperonata, toasted almonds, and grilled lemon. It was like a swirling textural hurricane—crunchy almonds and peperonata, perfectly chewy octopus, smooth ink puree, blistered lemon. The steak, a velvetty 40 oz. wood-grilled porterhouse bistecca alla fiorentina, was the best I’ve ever had. One of the most popular Tuscan dishes, it’s a high cut of meat that includes the bone and is traditionally served with a good Italian red wine. Since Il Palio is a winner of Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence and features wine from Italy’s 20 regions, we were pampered with the absolute best Italian wines throughout the dinner.
Accepting that the meal was soon to be over and probably wouldn’t get any better, I gave in to my satiety. But once I saw the dessert laid down in front of me, I mustered up every last ounce of hunger and curiosity to devour the masterpiece. A warm almond cake topped with sweet port wine-poached pear, thick whipped cream, and chocolate covered almonds. Perfection. I would eat that dessert every day for the rest of my life if I could. The night was finished with an assortment of mini Italian cookies, lots of hugs and handshakes, and a steaming cup of coffee to get home safely.