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Seasonal ingredients and skillful handling make Flour + Water a Mission hit 

Wednesday, Jul 22 2009
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Naming an Italian restaurant Flour + Water is a bit of a dare, as if to say, "Look what we can do with the humblest and simplest of ingredients." Owners David White, a veteran of Quince, and David Steele met in January 2008. Steele, an investment banker, had a passion for Italian food and a lifelong dream to have a restaurant. By April, they'd formed a partnership, and by August, they'd started construction.

Flour + Water is housed in a 19th-century corner building whose ground floor, designed by Sean Quigley of Paxton Gate, has been opened up to showcase rustic, sturdy, attractive wooden tables and chairs; a kitchen opening along the side wall through which you can glimpse the wood-burning Valoriani oven; and a striking mural featuring a sardine and an anchovy (also check out Quigley's arty installation in the bathroom).

White knew executive chef Thomas McNaughton from when they worked together at Quince. Pizza chef John Darsky, veteran of Pizzaiolo and Delfina Pizzeria, was introduced to Steele and White by the company that sold them their oven.

Hordes descended upon Flour + Water from day one, with rumored waits of several hours. When we tried to book online through OpenTable, we were told nothing was available for a month. But a staffer told us on the phone that half the tables are kept back for walk-ins, which we proved by easily scoring a table at 10:45 p.m. on a Sunday.

The one-page daily menu lists five antipasti, four pizzas, five pastas, and two vegetable contorni. We decided to try something from each of the first three categories. A hearty yet delicate warm salad featured slices of tender, velvety lamb's tongue with the tiniest new potatoes coated with wholegrain mustard atop atop a slick of garlicky salsa verde ($11), with a carefully poached egg perched on top, waiting to be pierced so its golden yolk could add its richness to the feast.

We chose the pomodoro pizza ($16), topped with yellow and red cherry tomatoes, peppercress, fior di latte, peperonata, and, for $2 extra, a carpeting of fresh spicy arugula. (All four pizzas that night were vegetarian.) The pie came to the table smoking hot, its still-puffy edges blistered with dark bubbles charred from the brick oven. The thin center crust drooped under the weight of its toppings, even though they were scattered in the restrained Italian style and not piled high in American-chain fashion.

The crust was swell and the tomatoes and the mild cheese were sweet, yet we were much more beguiled by the pasta. Cappelletti are carefully rolled, stuffed pastas that look like little hats. Flour + Water's version ($16), made of exquisitely tender thin-stretched elastic dough, was filled with white corn and mild yet tangy crescenza, covered in a silky butter sauce tinged with bitter honey, and garnished with more corn kernels. One bite was all it took to know this was one of the best pastas I'd ever tasted.

After that amazing dish, the roasted pork belly ($20) atop big fresh brown borlotti beans with strands of dark-green spinach was, though good, a bit of a letdown. Oddly, our server had insisted on how lean this particular hybrid Berkshire pig breed was. We like pork belly because it's a fatty cut, and there was still a good hunk of fat melting atop the chunk of meat. But despite its fat, the pork belly seemed a trifle dry and the beans a bit too firm. The dish would have benefited from a more generous allocation of bright, sharp fruit than the lone Santa Rosa plum half with which it was garnished. A dark, smooth chocolate budino ($7) topped with a puff of whipped cream flavored with espresso and caramel was made even more delicious by a contrasting sprinkle of crunchy sea-salt crystals.

Our second meal was even better than the first. We shared a summer salad of chunks of sweet heirloom tomatoes and white corn kernels ($10), topped with one enormous zucchini blossom stuffed with herbed ricotta, lightly battered, and fried to a shattering crispness. The margherita pizza ($12), topped with pools of fresh tomato sauce, fior di latte, extravirgin olive oil, and basil leaves, was simple and classic. We also had a sturdier biancoverde ($16) with ricotta, wild arugula, and crescents of green and yellow summer squash, to which we added an egg ($2 extra) for extra heft and savor. Tonight there was a calamari pizza among the four otherwise vegetarian choices.

Pizza good, pastas even better. In addition to the rerun of the buttery, cheesy, corny cappelletti, we had the maltagliati (supposedly made from pasta scraps). It was sauced with a wonderful, ever-so-slightly funky ragu of braised chicken giblets and brown butter, perked up with bright-green fava beans and a sprinkling of nepatella, a sharpish mintlike herb. We requested bread to sop up the remnants of the pastas' wonderful buttery sauces, one light, the other dark, both delicious.

A beautiful flaky white chunk of just-cooked halibut ($21) came with trimmed thin spears of baby asparagus; erbette chard; a chunky, sparky olive vinaigrette; and a mysterious, exciting brown purée that turned out to be deeply flavored rosa bianco eggplant.

The only disappointment of the meal was a casserole of fresh chickpeas with prosciutto ($5); the elusive flavor of the chickpeas seemed to have picked up nothing from the cured meat or the wood-fired oven.

By the time we finished our chocolate pudding and a slab of honey-pistachio semifreddo garnished with basil granita and sided with poached cherries and crumbled biscotti ($7), there were people in line who were happy to see us go. They wanted their chance to sit and to try Flour + Water's alchemical ways with its title ingredients.

"We feel great," White says after an intense few weeks. "People like what we're doing, and we're making people happy – which makes it easier to show up and work 14-hour days!"

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