I’m not totally sure what makes Italian food modern or classic, but after getting an invite to the soft opening of Sparrow Modern Italian in Edmond (in the space formerly occupied by the Martini Lounge), I can tell you that modern Italian food tastes just as good as the stuff you remember.
Maybe it’s in the cooking techniques, which executive chef Joel Wingate (recently of Cafe 501, another Holloway Restaurant Group eatery) employs in his kitchen? Because I will absolutely agree that there are some very fun twists on the usual red-sauce Italian menu.
Even with an abbreviated menu, I found plenty of dishes I was excited to try and I think you’ll dig them, too.
My love affair with arancini ($11) goes back years and with good reason. Anybody who hears “fried ball of risotto” and doesn’t immediately want one in their mouth is a crazy person. Here you get a pile of lovely, crispy balls in a vibrant pomodoro sauce. It doesn’t require much force to cleave these in twain with your fork to expose the added bonus—a core of molten mozzarella ready to ooze out for an extra-creamy bite. The risotto is rich in texture, but mild in flavor (hit it with a dash of salt and pepper to amp it up), but the pomodoro sauce adds a lovely acidic bite that made me ravenous.
We tried a pair of salads and, look, I know it seems weird to get excited about salads, but I trust Wingate’s palate implicitly.
The Italian chopped salad ($11) is everything you wish that Olive Garden salad was. The Italian vinaigrette was tangy without being oppressively overpowering. Instead, it added a zing to the piles of baby gem lettuce, pepperoncinis, fried chickpeas, and heirloom tomatoes. And it’s hard to overstate how lovely it was to stumble upon bites with salami, mozzarella, and crispy pepperoni hidden among the leaves.
I don’t know if this is low-cal, but it’s definitely a light and refreshing salad, plus it’s large enough I could easily see this as a lunch option when Sparrow starts opening for lunch (in the coming months).
More straightforward was the heirloom tomato and fresh mozzarella salad ($9), which is a play on the classic Caprese salad. This version has some baby spinach along with ripe tomato chunks and small bites of mozz tossed with a dressing of olive oil and aged balsamic vinegar.
The balsamic is used sparingly, as it should be, because it’s an accent flavor. Balsamic, especially the good stuff, can take your palate on a rollercoaster ride. Playing off the richness of the cheese and oil, the vinegar and the sweet tomatoes really run the gamut of flavors.
The pasta selection covers all the right bases—spaghetti and meatballs, cacio e pepe, ravioli, gnocchi, bolognese—but I couldn’t resist the lure of the (accurately named) 100-Layer Lasagna ($28).
Most lasagna comes to us stacked in layers, but this monster makes its way to the table on its side because...well...look at it.
They really do stack this thing so high, but the way they cut it is like a giant book, which they then crisp up and top with a dollop of whipped ricotta cheese. What you get is layer after layer of pasta, bolognese sauce, garlic, basil, etc. It’s lasagna, done extremely well, in a form factor that is eye-catching and allows for a little extra char. All I can say is I loved it so much I had it for dinner and then breakfast.
The wild mushroom and leek risotto ($18) was lovely. The use of leeks instead of onions gives it a milder flavor and really lets the mushrooms shine, since they’re the main flavor component here. The rice was cooked perfectly, creating that lovely savory-and-starchy sauce we all love that holds everything together.
It’s not the most exciting dish on the menu, but it’s solid and the few bites I had of it were mighty tasty. If you need to jack it up a bit, ask for some of the chili oil they bring out with the pizzas. It’ll add a nice sizzle.
Now for the big guns: Crispy pepperoni pizza ($15) is a ridiculous thing.
For starters, the crust uses a sourdough starter the owners of Holloway Restaurant Group brought back from San Francisco 25 years ago. It makes an incredible difference in the texture and flavor of this crust. My best gal lived in New York for a decade and this is the first pizza we’ve shared that she wanted to take home.
“You can reach for it, but you’ll be going home without a hand,” was something close to what she told me.
On top of the pizza is pepperoni and mozzarella. And on top of that is more pepperoni. Fried pepperoni. A mountain of it. Crispy and glorious. Pull out a slice, try to keep some of the fried pepperoni slices on top. Maybe hit it with a drizzle of that chili oil.
But WOW this is a great pepperoni pizza. (Check out Robbie C’s Pepperoni Situation for more wonderful pepperoni pizza reviews.)
Finally, we had the house tiramisu ($9) and I loved the presentation.
Tiramisu as a casserole seems to be the standard way to serve it in Oklahoma, but this slightly more restrained version features ladyfingers that haven’t been completely destroyed by adding too much rum coffee. And the whipped mascarpone cheese is piped between layers with an eye for detail and design. It looks simple, but executing it this way is no easy feat.
Sparrow opens to the public for dinner May 29 and will remain dinner-only for a couple of months until they iron out all the kinks. Then look for lunch and brunch services to be added.
As for me, I’ll be back (pretty sure Jess wants more of that pizza ASAP) and you can be sure a full review is coming down the pike.