This was my third time dining at Sienna, the pioneering Italian restaurant that chef-owner Ken Vedrinski opened on Daniel Island in March 2004. Twin signs, with letters that looked like sunken Scrabble tiles, greeted us. I don’t know how many points S-I-E-N-N-A would score in Scrabble, but when it comes to Stateside Italian food, the restaurant deserves at least a triple word score.
The evening’s bread selection included Parmesan flatbread, ciabatta and garlic sage biscuits. Chef Vedrinski created a recipe for addictive cheddar biscuits during his nine-year stint at Woodlands Resort & Inn that were so devastatingly good that the restaurant still serves them. Chef Kelly created a fairly successful homage. Bocconcini, diced tomatoes, olive oil, Kalamata and green olive slivers accompanied the breads, a massive improvement on straight butter or olive oil.
Prized Atlantic bluefin tuna is almost uniformly sold by American fishermen to Japan, where they can earn several times as much money at auction in venues like Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market. Seeing bluefin on a menu in the States is indicative of a restaurateur who’s dedicated to quality. At Sienna, Chef Vedrinski’s signature Crudo of Maine Bluefin Tuna in Four Preparations ($14) changes daily.
Our waiter carried a metal pot to the table and lifted the lid, uncorking a tempting aroma. He ladled the soup into two oval shaped bowls. Chef Ken’s Grandmother (Nonna Volpe) clearly knew what she was doing in the kitchen, crafting a recipe for chicken and vegetable soup loaded with herb-flecked meatballs. There were little bead-shaped pasta, a dice of carrots and celery, and herbs from Sienna’s backyard garden.
Braised pork cheek arrived on a spinach and farro bed. On top were slivers that looked like almonds but were roasted salsify, a root vegetable also known as Jerusalem artichoke. The salsify was sprinkled with crispy bits of pancetta. The farro “risotto” was blended with a little Parmesan, adding a subtle creaminess to the somewhat nutty grain. The second preparation was thin, crispy pork tenderloin Parmagiana, two crisp, thin-pounded slices of pork on spinach, topped with mozzarella, toasted pine nuts and sweet pear compote. This dish was certainly one of the year’s best.
- Milk chocolate panna cotta arrived in the shape of a cylinder, with a plume of peppermint “bark” – a sheet of chocolate studded with crushed peppermint.
- Tiramisu Moderno, Stile di Sienna, was a chocolate torte with mocha panna cotta, chocolate espresso semifreddo and white chocolate cream.
- Mascarpone panna cotta was surrounded by a shallow pool of espresso cream with crushed espresso beans and topped by a rectangle of gelatin.
- Sigaro della Mandorla was a fried almond “cigar” with Marsala zabaglione (sweet custard).
- Panettone bread pudding was dusted with confectioner’s sugar and plated with cider sauce and a fruit compote of apple, pear, raisin and cranberry.
After two stellar meals at Sienna, expectations were high, yet I was still astounded by the flavors we encountered. At its heart, Sienna offers Italian comfort food, only prepared with more skill and presented with more flair than any other Italian restaurant I’ve encountered Stateside.