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Zeppa Bistro is a South Wedge delight

Zeppa Bistro is at the apex of this resurgent neighborhood's food chain

A parade of new shops and eateries is lining up along the South Wedge and Zeppa Bistro leads the way—despite being nearly hidden in the back corner of the historic German House on Gregory Street. The restaurant is reminiscent of cozy Italian eateries in cramped New York City basements or Old-World taverns hiding down Venetian side streets.

Long time Rochesterians will remember The Keg, a popular spot to hear musicians playing in the Zeppa Auditorium upstairs or for sports fans to catch the latest game. Zeppa Bistro has erased all reminders of The Keg except the location of the bar. The entrance opens to a sloped staircase leading to the main dining room with gray-tiled floors and dark wood-paneled walls. Between ceiling-level windows flicker rows of tea candles perched on a ledge, creating a dreamy, quiet atmosphere. Tables are scattered far enough apart to allow privacy and a little romance.

The dapper bar boasts a handwritten chalkboard sign and a tantalizing list of beer, wine and liquor. There are also trendy new handmade cocktails for spring. The Blood Orange Martini is a sweet, tart blend that starts with muddled lime-and-rosemary simple syrup. The addition of blood orange purée, a snazzy ingredient made in-house as well as Stoli O vodka, and Cointreau supply enough citrus to allow yourself more than one martini, if only for the sake of all that vitamin C.

The Ginger Shandy is a nod to the beer and liquor fusion trend for those who can’t make up their minds. Muddled mint leaves and ginger simple syrup provide a base for Domaine de Canton French ginger liqueur and fresh-squeezed lemon juice. The last touch, Breckenridge Brewery Agave nectar wheat beer, adds a bit of sparkle.

Flaky Parker House rolls are plucked from a straw basket where they’re kept warm in a swath of dark linens. A small porcelain dish of butter also arrives, and it’s the very first indication that the chefs at Zeppa intend to stand out. They add chives, salt, pepper, garlic and a splash of worcestershire sauce before reshaping the ingredients into tiny yellow tufts. The rolls pop apart in layers, a nod to buttering etiquette.

The first appetizer is a regional favorite with a twist: grilled chicken wings coated in house-made ‘Zeppa sauce’ served with chunky bleu cheese dressing. The bright orange sauce oozes, completely staining fingers and stinging lips. It’s the way chicken wings were always meant to be: messy, peppery and satisfying.

Kenneth Holenbeck and Seth Lindahl opened Zeppa Bistro in January 2012. The co-owner/co-chef duo also owns the eclectic Mise en Place market on South Avenue, where patrons can buy everything from a carton of eggs to a homemade meal at the takeout counter.

There’s a range of cuisines on the Zeppa menu, from lavish, European-influenced dishes like Dijon Herb Crusted Pork Schnitzel to simple entrees that highlight seasonal vegetables, like the Pan Roasted Airline Chicken Breast. The soup and salad menu also makes full use of seasonal vegetables. It’s hard to fathom lentil soup could be anything but a dish prepared by Grandma, but Zeppa has made it modern and mouth-watering. Ladled into a wide white bowl and stocked with english peas, pancetta, carrots, onions and pecorino, this is a lentil soup for the next generation. The truffle oil, perhaps, is the secret ingredient.

Zeppa works closely with local farms to create meals around their produce and livestock. The Maple Leaf Farms duck breast entrée splays tender slices of duck breast across a generous portion of sage gnocchi, braised greens and baby carrots bathed in brown butter jus and fig balsamic vinaigrette. The edges of the duck breast provide a crisp, saline finish to the mallard’s mild flesh. Cut into squares rather than rolled, the gnocchi is atypical—a texture somehwere between doughy bread and pasta, but light on potato. In a side dish that could have been bland, a smattering of sage made the gnocchi piquant and full of body. The balsamic, greens and carrots lend a bit of brightness for the meal. Overall, the duck entrée was very filling and could easily be split by two people with the addition of an appetizer and dessert.

Beef abounds on the menu, but the ten-ounce Ground Chuck Burger—topped with fried egg, Jarlsberg cheese, bacon onion jam, mushrooms, whole grain mustard vegetable relish and garlic aioli on a black sesame hard roll—might be the most ambitious. The burger towers at nearly six inches and comes with a pile of steaming pommes frîtes.

There isn’t a printed menu for dessert, as the specials change weekly, sometimes even daily. Most of the choices are a spin on traditional favorites—and like the entrées, served in generous portions. The orange and cinnamon ricotta cannoli dessert arrives with two full-sized cannoli and a heaping scoop of chocolate orange ice cream. A dusting of powdered sugar and sprig of mint add delicacy, but doesn’t detract from the luscious, thick ricotta dripping from the crumbling cannoli shells or the dense, creamy ice cream—with a texture more like gelato.

The bill came to $75 before tip (and that included cocktails), a steal in such an up-and-coming neighborhood. In a local food scene that tends to dilute “farm-to-table” and “bistro” with overuse and underachievement, Zeppa is a bold newcomer prepared to compete with more-established spots in Rochester.

The food is fresh and inventive, the service is snappy, and the patrons just keep coming back.

Leah Stacy is a freelance writer and videographer. She’s also the co-founder of a travel journalism startup called The Bly Project.


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