Rise and Shine

Flour's dishes change, but quality house-made ingredients are always on the menu.

Mix a little yeast and water with milled wheat, and you get dough that just wants to grow. Give it time and a good kneading, shape it into a round, sprinkle it with cheese and other good things, and bake. What happens next is akin to magic.

Like a rabbit pulled from a hat, pizza comes out of the oven. It's a mainstay at Flour, the self-described rustic Italian kitchen that opened in Moreland Hills in April. The leavening action that makes the crust rise is a fine symbol for the way Flour, an informal, chef-driven restaurant, has sprung up in a standard little strip mall and put its mark on the dining scene in this eastern suburb.

Paul Minnillo, a culinary luminary in these parts, partnered with up-and-comer Christopher Di Lisi, who worked for him at the former Baricelli Inn. This venture marks a shift for the pair toward a more relaxed style and greater options than what they used to do.

You can have a five-course meal or five shared plates. Think of it as fine food without any of the pomp and circumstance associated with fine dining.

One of the defining features of the concept is the commitment to prepare almost everything in-house, from pasta to condiments and cured meats. And you can taste the care in every bite.

They're even doing their own ricotta, and it's sweet, creamy and worlds away from anything that comes in a plastic container. Our antipasti portion ($11), enough for two, was whipped, drizzled with pesto and surrounded by thick chunks of grilled, salted focaccia. It's simple, unpretentious and delicious.

A salumi board ($17) is another opportunity to dig deep into the from-scratch ethic. The selection changes regularly. When I was there, they were pulling items such as veal pastrami, culatello and naturally fermented Genoa salami from the aging cooler.

Sausage is also made in the kitchen. It was on my excellent Salsiccia pizza with crushed tomatoes, smoked mozzarella and fresh oregano ($14). The crust was thin and crisp, but sturdy enough to hold the toppings, with crackly bubbles and charred edges just as it should be when cooked in a hot wood-burning oven. We had the 10-inch pie as an appetizer. The pizzas work equally well as kid-pleasing entrees and as part of a table-grazing spread.

Minnillo tweaks the one-page menu every night, taking advantage of seasonal and exceptional ingredients. But the core structure stays in place: a mix of antipasti; daily meat and cheese boards; salads; four pastas and a risotto, available in half and full portions; five pizzas; and six heartier main dishes. There are no rules, and dishes can be combined in whatever way appeals to you.

Even the bruschetta ($3 per piece) can be mixed and matched, with spreads and toppings varying daily. We had a traditional caponata that nicely balanced tart and sweet notes, and a plush smooth textured eggplant puree.

The spaghetti and clams was purposefully uncomplicated. The basic ingredients — petite Manila clams, garlic, white wine and chili flakes — combine for an authentic, splendid result ($11, $19). An elegant fennel risotto, with a consistency reminiscent of rice pudding, gets the same less-is-more treatment ($9, $17). It's seasoned with preserved lemon and crowned with a vinegary little tangle of shaved asparagus, favas and radishes. Both benefit from restraint.

The hangar bistecca reveals the lengths they'll go to turn a good steak into a great one ($25). This humble piece of beef is cured then simmered sous vide (like boiling in a bag at much lower heat) with roasted garlic. It emerges soft as warm butter, full of flavor with a perfect pink center. Slices are fanned out on carrot puree with roasted oyster mushrooms and house oven-dried tomato pesto, further example of how the chefs elevate the ordinary.

Some places don't manage dessert as well as the rest of the menu, and others job it out. Here, the finish is just as good as the start, and Flour's pastry chef deserves credit. The salted chocolate brownie served with basil ice cream, fizzy Pop Rocks chips and extra virgin olive oil is a brilliant combination, defying expectations about what goes with what ($7.50). Almond panna cotta, a dense custard, with a cookie is a childhood pleasure retooled for grownups ($7).

Despite the Italian cuisine, don't expect red and white checked cloths or candles in Chianti bottles. The space, divided into a dining room and a more intimate bar area, is spare and sophisticated. A designer's touch is evident in the tangerine accent walls texturized with marble dust and the brushed zinc tabletops. The contemporary look creates a problem: nothing soft to absorb noise. But Minnillo assures me a fix is in the works. Other than that, I wouldn't change a thing: Flour's already on the rise.

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