When developing his newest Charleston restaurant concept, Costa, executive chef Vincent Petrillo applied two principles: embracing the positive changes in kitchen environment norms, and being true to his southern Italian roots.
Costa is tucked into a corner of the swankily rebuilt Jasper condominium complex, but inside, it’s a space all its own. Nothing obstructs the line of view throughout the dining and bar area, all the way over to the open kitchen with a counter line that stretches almost the entire width of the restaurant.
“Just like Zero George and Wild Common, we always want to be able to provide some kind of experience,” says Petrillo. “Here we thought the show could be the kitchen itself. You get to watch everything being done. There’s smoke and fire and no yelling or craziness. I worked in kitchens where they would scream and yell and it was like being in the military. You can’t do that anymore. We try to give people a quality of life and that’s really my main focus right now: What can we do to support our staff?”
James Beard Award-winning architect Glen Coben designed the space, which is understated but stunning with a line of low yellow leather banquettes bisecting the main dining area, a raised seating area overlooking the entire room, and a capacious bar. Mirrored walls, high ceilings, and pendant lighting create a sophisticated European feel like something out of a James Bond movie, with punchy, perfectly pitched music and a lively atmosphere. Nonetheless, it’s easily possible to enjoy an intimate dinner tucked into a two-top by the windows.
Once you’re there, just go ahead and order a bottle of wine, because the food will completely take over. “We took a trip to southern Italy—Rome, Naples, the Amalfi Coast, Capri, Positano—and ate lots of food,” Petrillo says of his basis for the menu, which is divided into sections: raw, cold and hot appetizers, and entrees served à la carte, with contorni, or sides, available to order separately. “A lot of people think of Italian food as American Italian food, spaghetti and meatballs. We use very little red sauce. In Italy, it was just about the ingredients.” About 65 percent of the menu at Costa is locally sourced, and it changes seasonally.
Crudos and other raw preparations start off the menu and are not to be missed: The red shrimp, cut into thirds, individually wrapped in shiso leaves, accented with Calabrian chili and toasted sesame, and topped with a lemon sorbet, is perfectly balanced, as is the tuna with neonata, a fish-based condiment, topped with crispy sunchoke chips seasoned with seaweed powder.
Following this refreshing start, the winter-menu burrata is both surprising and comforting; sweet butterkin squash develops the subtle flavor of the burrata in an unexpected way, enhanced by melted leeks, crispy sage, and truffle. These unusual takes on familiar fine-dining fare are characteristic of the menu: a square of “mozzarella in carrozza” topped with an absolutely luxurious amount of Regiis Ova Kaluga caviar; a beef carpaccio flavored with mint, coriander, and sweet and spicy peanuts. “I always think of the question of ‘what is Italian food,’” Petrillo says, “and you go to Italy and they still draw inspiration from places like Japan and Thailand and African cuisines. It’s all there, just like in America.”
Entrée and pasta options are carefully selected. Although a simple and familiar anchor, the pecorino ravioli is creatively designed to eat like a soup dumpling, with a liquid center; the candele, long hollow pasta “like a giant bucatini,” was conceived to capture all the flavors of the Amalfi Coast: anchovy, lemon, and parmesan, enhanced with an umami dashi base. The pork Milanese is made, unusually, with pork shoulder, chosen for the variety of flavor it offers, and the kitchen uses the trimmings for housemade mortadella, served on a simple pizza dough with mozzarella and “really good olive oil.”
A delightful final highlight is Gary’s eggplant parmigiana. “Gary is my dad,” Petrillo says. “A lot of people don’t know that eggplant parm comes from southern Italy. I grew up in an Italian family, and on Sundays, my father and I would always make eggplant parm together. It’s there for vegetarians but everyone seems to order it and enjoy it.” It’s a hefty, welcoming portion, in keeping with the goal of dining at Costa: “Everything is meant to be shared.”