Melfi’s brings a convivial space and fresh, classic Italian to Upper King (Charleston City Paper)

Recently, I found myself Googling things like “Brooks Reitz Crazy Bastard” and “Tim Mink Hard Start.”

Hey, I didn’t write the menu.

It turns out these totally harmless, not-at-all-weird searches leads one again and again to Neighbourhood, the ‘hospitality design and concept development firm’ run by Reitz and Mink, the dynamic duo behind Melfi’s. The burgeoning restaurant magnates’ mission statement notes that they “create tailored, thoughtful design-driven experiences. We develop concepts that are engaging, honest and personal. We are inspired by classic style, built to stand the test of time.”

Check.

Check.

Check.

Whether a preconceived poster child or the inevitable outcome of a patient, purposeful manifesto, Melfi’s is the real-life prototype.

New, but familiar, the “clubby space” (as they describe it) is at once welcoming and refined. Similarly, the food is original, while still approachable.

The friendly waitress quickly appeared and suggested ordering from each of the categories and sharing amongst the table, starting with a pizza. The Stretch Armstrong ($21) is the simplest offering of the bunch, a Margherita of sorts. The uncommonly light, crisp crust is topped with a lightly seasoned red sauce bursting with tomato flavor. Gilding the lily is a generous ration of fresh, homemade Stracciatella di bufala cheese. Mixed with thick cream, Stracciatella is used to make burrata, but even on its own, the same mild creaminess is present. Light, yet decadent, it’s a damn good pie.

The zucchini fritti ($7) is well-executed, but bland. Delicately breaded and fried, the tiny squash sticks are the size of matchstick potatoes and arrive jumbled in a bowl. “It’s a little bit awkward to eat,” noted my dining companion, as several of the airy fried strips freed themselves and jumped from his grip.

While setting it on the table, the waitress noted the sort-of spicy Caesar salad ($15) can be eaten with your hands. Although a messy approach, it speeds the fresh, crisp romaine leaves, flavorful dressing, and crunchy, buttery breadcrumb crumbles into your mouth that much faster. Whether you approach it as a finger food or not, it’s a novel homage to the traditional salad.

At first pass, the tuna and field pea salad ($13) seemed incongruent. The tuna itself bucks trends, and is served fully cooked and chunked. The fresh legumes are combined with red onion, mint leaves, and little bits of spicy Serrano pepper, then dressed in vinegar and olive oil. Light and bright, it’s not what I expected, but grew on me quickly. In a meal filled with heavy dishes, it’s a refreshing shift.

The beverage menu is unique, and along with classic Italian cocktails and spritzers, features shakeratos and seven different negronis. The classic negroni ($12) is bitter, but smooth. Not the kind of thing one feels compelled to gulp, this would be a good choice for anyone looking to nurse a drink.

The Hard Start ($10) was chosen for its name, and it turns out the 50/50 mix of fernet branca and branca menta tastes remarkably like Listerine. Filled with minuscule ice crystals that melt as you drink it, the mouthfeel is lovely. Presumably some sort of hangover remedy, I get it, but I wouldn’t get it again.

New to the menu, the shrimp and sausage ($30) was strongly endorsed by the waitress. Braised green Romano beans, onions, and red bell peppers join a creamy, light Anson Mills polenta. The sliced sausage link tastes strongly of black pepper, while the fluffy grits appear to have been prepared with ricotta. A seeming Italian riff on shrimp and grits, it’s also one of the more filling portions.

Likewise, the rigatoni ($24) is served ‘crazy bastard’ style, which apparently means a hearty, spicy sauce made with nduja sausage and chunks of salty soppressata. Subdued by the cool, mild scoop of fresh ricotta, the dense, toothy pasta and rich sauce conspire to produce a simple, comforting, yet original bite.

Melfi’s is quite noisy, but that’s also a reflection of its current popularity. Filled with a boisterous crowd, the vibe remains neighborly — or perhaps that should be Neighbourhoodly — despite the din.

With its convivial space and fresh, yet soothingly familiar dishes, it seems the other Reitz-Mink projects on the strip (Leon’s Oyster Shop and Little Jack’s Tavern) have a coconspirator in their apparent bid for total Upper King domination. As the space once occupied by Pancito & Lefty sits empty across the street, one can only hope some Asian flair is the next to join the syndicate.