To say that fans were disappointed when Samad Hachby announced plans to close Babylon and reopen it as an Italian restaurant would be an understatement. Babylon was Raleigh’s only Moroccan restaurant, after all, and a popular vegetarian destination to boot.
To be fair, Hachby – who was born in Casablanca and attended schools in Italy before coming to the States to earn a political science degree from N.C. State – never made a secret of his free-ranging palate. He liberally salted the Babylon menu with contemporary twists on his native cuisine, sometimes venturing outside Morocco for inspiration. Tucked in among the likes of lamb tagine and chicken couscous, a handful of surprisingly good wood-fired vegetarian pizzas on a multigrain crust were, as it turns out, a harbinger of things to come.
It should come as no surprise that Mulino Italian Kitchen & Bar, which opened its doors in April, is no ordinary Italian restaurant. “I’m pushing for what is called ‘cucina casareccia,’ ” Hachby says, “which is a cuisine that is homey and rustic.” He goes on to explain that the term translates, for the most part, to traditional regional dishes, minimally adjusted at Mulino to suit evolving American tastes.
Hachby, a passionate self-taught cook, invited the chef of one of his favorite restaurants in Italy, Ilaria Menzolini of Osteria del Mulino in Umbria, to come to Raleigh and work with him to develop the opening menu. To help him put his vision on the plate on an ongoing basis, he hired executive chef Paolo Gavazza, a native of Rome who had previously worked for three years at Enrigo in Cary.
Central to that vision are house-made pastas. Spaghetti carbonara is authentically sauced with an egg cooked by the heat of the pasta, tossed with pancetta, black pepper and pecorino cheese. Bolognese, made with ground beef and pork, is rich and meaty in a rosemary-tinged tomato sauce, twirled into a tangle of supple tagliatelle. A plate of gnocchi al tartufo in a Reggiano cream sauce owes its musty-earthy perfume to bits of actual black truffle.
Hachby is especially proud of his lasagna, a layering of house-made noodles, beef ragu, besciamella, Parmigiano and tomato sauce that’s notably lighter than the familiar Italian-American rendition but at the same time won’t leave you hungry.
That’s not to say you won’t have room to start your meal with an antipasto or two. Just go easy on the complimentary basket of Roman-style focaccia, spangled with oven-roasted tomato and oil-cured olives.
Skip the bruschetta sampler, which tempts you with toppings such as stracchino-salami and cream of canellini, then lets you down with too-soft bread and skimpy portions. Instead, go for arancini, deep-fried rice balls with a beef ragu playing toothsome counterpoint to their fresh mozzarella creaminess. Better still, get the polpo: exquisitely tender slow-roasted octopus, recently served with farro and white wine-braised celery.
The entree offering is brief but varied, typically covering the seafood-poultry-red meats bases in the space of five listings. You can usually count on braised lamb shank (a nod to Babylon, where the dish was a perennial favorite), which recently scored a double bull’s-eye in a pairing with creamy saffron-tinged risotto. And if you’ve ever wondered how the Italian-American dish of seafood and marinara sauce got the name zuppa di pesce, Mulino’s rendition – clams, mussels, shrimp and wild-caught fish in a rich fumé broth – will enlighten you. Turns out in Italy, the “zuppa” is in fact soup.
Pizzas, deservedly popular at Babylon, are if anything better than ever. The dough has been tweaked, and topping options have expanded to include the likes of Boscaiola (mushroom, sausage and fresh fior di latte mozzarella) and Mulino (prosciutto, mozzarella and a baked egg on a tomato base, with a generous post-bake shower of arugula).
Kitchen miscues are uncommon, and generally minor. A plate of house-made ravioli, filled with ricotta and spinach and served in a sage-Parmigiano cream sauce, looks like a pasty blob without the sage leaves garnishing the dish as it’s pictured on the restaurant’s website. But while the eye objects, the mouth will have no complaints.
I’m afraid the same can’t be said for a panna cotta suffering from a surfeit of gelatin to the point of rubberiness. If your sweet tooth insists on dessert, opt instead for the tiramisu.
Most disappointments – in the food or otherwise – can be chalked up to service. Widely variable levels of experience and attentiveness can result in a forgotten bread service, a feeling that you’re being rushed, or dishes that are lukewarm by the time they arrive at your table.
“We’re aware of the problem, and we’re working on it,” Hachby says, noting that delivering hot food to tables scattered across Mulino’s sprawling patio presents a special challenge.
And believe me, weather permitting, you’ll want to be on the patio. Not that the dining room, which has gotten an overhaul to give it a more open outdoors-brought-indoors feel, isn’t an inviting (if sometimes noisy) option. But the patio – more of a courtyard, really, with mosaic tile tabletops, plants spilling out of large earthenware pots, and a large central reflecting pool combining to evoke an Italian piazza – is a setting unlike any other in the Triangle.
As you sit there, sipping on a glass of Lambrusco (the quintessential Italian picnic wine), looking across nearby rooftops to the downtown Raleigh skyline, you may even find yourself thinking that the occasional less-than-ideally-hot plate of gnocchi is a small price to pay.
309 N. Dawson St., Raleigh
Atmosphere: dining room airy and rustic, patio evocative of an Italian courtyard
Noise level: moderate to high
Service: widely variable
Recommended: arancini, polpo, pizzas, house-made pastas, zuppa di pesce, lamb shank
Open: dinner Tuesday-Sunday
Reservations: recommended on weekends
Other: full bar; accommodates children; modest vegetarian selection; patio; parking in lot (valet parking available).
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ☆☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary ☆☆☆☆ Excellent. ☆☆☆ Above average. ☆☆Average. ☆ Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.