Classic and Cosmopolitan

Photography by Tyler Darden

Looking for a slow, family-style Tuscan eatery? Or does a sleek wine bar suit you? CHRISTINA BALL found both, in Fredericksburg—across the street from one another and each run by a dynamic husband-and-wife team.

     After a delicious light lunch at the enduring Bistro Bethem on William Street—a perfect pair of fresh oysters and duck tacos with arugula and crème fraîche, followed by an excellent coffee at Hyperion Espresso a few doors down—I explored the streets and shops of historic downtown Fredericksburg. It was then time to make my way to Kybecca Wine Bar for a pre-dinner experience. And I mean experience. Located right across the street from our dinner destination (Poppy Hill) in a large corner building, Kybecca is more Barcelona than Tuscany, more slick than rustic, more innovative than traditional. Case in point: The red-and-white awning does more than just shade diners on the front patio—it also sprays them with cool mist in the summer and warms them with infrared heaters in the cooler months. One might expect such state-of-the-art technology in Las Vegas or Aspen—but in Frederickburg? The surprises, I discovered, continue on the inside.

     True to its name, Kybecca merges both the talents and the passions of owners Kyle and Rebecca Snyder. Inspired by their love of food, wine and entertaining as well as their travels throughout Europe, the husband-and-wife team hit the Fredericksburg scene in 2005 with their wine and gourmet shop dedicated to small, artisanal and family-run producers and a democratic approach to wine education. When the much larger space next door went vacant last year, they grabbed it and leapt into the restaurant realm as well. The couple knocked down a wall, and now both the wine shop and the restaurant share the expansive space. Rebecca Snyder, a former VCU interior design student, designed the open, contemporary wine bar. Kyle, with a background in construction, refinished the original wood floors and built everything from the concrete bar to the red vinyl-and-steel banquettes.

     Perhaps the only thing the couple didn’t design or build, but had the good sense to purchase, is the 32-bottle Enomatic wine dispensing machine gleaming against one wall. Though seemingly New World, this vending machine was actually designed and manufactured in Italy’s most historic wine region: Chianti Classico. Here’s how this revolutionary robot works: You purchase a debit-like card (from a human), insert it into the machine, select your wine, put your glass under the spout, press the desired portion button (sample, half or full glass) and drink! Because the machine preserves open bottles of wine for up to three weeks (via the injection of inert nitrogen gas), it makes it possible for restaurateurs to offer a broader selection of vintages, thus promoting tasting and learning.

     I quickly obtained an Enomatic card and got to work—or play—sampling wines I normally only dream about: complex, juicy El Nido from Jumilla, Spain, and Orin Swift’s Papillon, an elegant, spicy Bordeaux blend from Napa. In Fredericksburg, I was finally able to experience the winner of Italy’s best red of 2008: the soft, mineral-rich Faro Palari 2005, from the Mt. Etna region of Sicily.

     Enomats aside, Kybecca also has table service and a fine small-plates menu. As soon as my husband arrived, it was time for tapas: crusty bread and plump olives, a bowl of rich, spicy tomato soup, mussels in a curry and white ale broth and Kybecca’s signature dish: a trio of tiny (local) bison and blue cheese sliders with cornichon pickle relish. I was tempted to try more, but was time for our main meal—dinner at Poppy Hill.

     My acquaintance with Poppy Hill Tuscan Kitchen began with one magical word: cesarine. Pronounced chay-zah-REE-nay, this term refers to a group of Italian home cooks who preserve the secrets of their region’s traditional cuisine, be it Roman carbonara, orecchiette from Puglia, Sicilian cannoli, paper-thin carta da musica bread from the isle of Sardegna or Tuscany’s pappardelle with cinghiale (wild boar) sauce.

     In our first e-mail correspondence, managing owner Ingrid Mahar asked me how she and her husband, chef Scott Mahar, would go about arranging a series of cooking classes with a cesarina—or two. Impressed already, I put her in touch with Home Food, a group that manages a vast cesarina network and makes it possible for individuals to learn some Italian culinary secrets without marrying into the family. At the same time, I made a dinner reservation at Poppy Hill, which had been on my short list ever since it earned an Epicurious nod as one of the country’s top 10 farm-to-table restaurants.

     After our cosmopolitan experience at Kybecca, Poppy Hill felt kind of like visiting family, or returning home. We crossed the street, strolled past a dozen or so poppy-red chairs and tables on the sidewalk and then moved down the stairs to a surprisingly inviting dining room. I have many positive memories associated with underground meals, and they are all Italian: from my grandmother’s ravioli and tomato sauce in the basement of her Arlington, Massachusetts duplex to the more elegant dishes and décor of the Cantinetta Antinori in Florence. So it made sense to me that the Mahars would pick this basement space—an eatery for 50 years—for the site of their own restaurant, rooted in Italian cuisine and in the seasonal flavors of Virginia. Ingrid greeted me with a hug, introduced us to her sisters (twins) who have worked as servers since they opened two years ago and sat us at the only vacant table left in this popular little place. The pleasant sounds of pots and pans clanking and knives chopping in the kitchen was just audible enough.

     Scott Mahar grew up in Boston (he wears a Red Sox cap instead of a chef’s hat) and Portland, Maine, and inherited his love of cooking and garden-fresh produce from his Italian grandfather. At 10, he got his first Pasta Queen machine. Now in his own kitchen, Scott makes fresh pasta daily (spaghettini and tagliatelle), not to mention focaccia and just about every sauce, stock and dessert on the menu. He fries his own cannoli shells and fills them with the best ricotta cream—mine came drizzled with honey and candied pecans—I’ve tasted outside of Palermo.

     Though Ingrid’s from California (it shows in her wine list—only Italian and California labels), she and Scott met in New Hampshire, where they owned a pub together. After culinary school for Scott (Le Cordon Bleu) and several years in New York and D.C., they decided to settle with their young children in more tranquil Fredericksburg. “We absolutely hated not working together,” says Ingrid of their years in D.C. (she was at the Ritz Carlton, he at the Poste-Moderne Brasserie). “There was no one to bounce ideas off of, no safety net of creativity.”

     From the hospitality to the service to the food and wine, it’s evident that the Mahars pour their heart, soul and talent into their Fredericksburg restaurant. Our dinner felt both familiar and surprisingly new: a plate of Italian artisanal cheeses accompanied by crostini and Scott’s trio of jams and chutneys (citrus, caramelized onion, roasted garlic), tagliatelle with a slightly spicy wild boar ragù, fresh and flaky pan-seared cod and the chef’s take on surf ’n’ turf: boneless short ribs braised with a clever Chianti-blueberry barbecue sauce and seared sea scallops on a mound of rustic Parmesan polenta.

     We washed it all down, leisurely, with Ingrid’s favorite Italian red (now one of ours)—a Chianti Classico Riserva from Savignola Paolina. No Enomatic card required: This wine, like Mahar’s food, is best hand-poured and enjoyed with friends and family—the slow, Italian way.

Kybecca Wine Bar & Shop

400 William Street, 540.373.3338 or KybeccaWineBar.com

Poppy Hill Tuscan Kitchen

1000 Charles Street, 540.373.2035 or CiaoPoppyHill.com

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