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REVIEW | Salumeria 104

Published on January 8, 2024 at 1:00 pm
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There’s just enough glitz and polish at Salumeria 104 in Atlantic Beach to make a guest wonder if the Italian restaurant is all hat and no cattle. Or, considering that it’s the first Jacksonville-area venture from a restaurant company based in Miami, maybe it’s all bronzer, no sunshine.

That concern crossed my mind on my first visit to Salumeria 104, which has been so successful since opening in February on Ocean Boulevard that Graspa Group recently announced plans to launch another Florida location, possibly in Jacksonville proper. “There’s good potential,” co-owner Angelo Masarin told the Jacksonville Business Journal.

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Zeroing in on potential as a restaurateur involves analyzing traffic patterns, feeling out investors, and evaluating the competition, among other complicated undertakings that could land the next Salumeria in Orlando. For diners, fortunately, identifying the best available option is much simpler: All an eater need do is pick up on the unsubtle signs pointing them to the pride of the kitchen. If a dish is pictured on the menu or a souvenir hoodie, for goodness’ sake, order it.

Hanna Raskin

Logically, then, if a restaurant is named for cured meat, the go-tos ought to be prosciutto, mortadella, and speck. Except when I raised my voice above the bar buzz to ask about what I presumed was the house specialty, listed prominently along the left side of the arm’s length paper menu, I learned that Salumeria doesn’t produce its salumi: It purchases it (and, helpfully, retails it by weight to locals and tourists seeking a quick patio nosh.)

Apparently, when Masarin in 2011 picked the name for the original Salumeria 104 in midtown Miami, he wanted to evoke a salumi shop.

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I’m not sure I’ve ever visited a dedicated salumi store, so I can’t rule conclusively on whether Salumeria 104 does justice to its inspiration. Is it possible, though, that salumi-only bazaars are distinguished by warm and knowledgeable service, a cheery atmosphere that buoys customers to share small talk and small bites with strangers, moreish pasta dishes, and swanky cocktails stirred with certitude? Because if that’s the case, Masarin and team nailed it.

Excellence is one of the few unexpected elements at Salumeria 104, which isn’t a knock on a restaurant that prioritizes its customers’ comfort and pleasure. If “modern Italian restaurant decor” was a Family Feud category, contestants would have little trouble coming up with the stucco-hued floor tiles, wooden ladder-back chairs, marble-topped bar, and wall mirrors that furnish the boxy, bifurcated dining room.

Similarly, the menu is stocked with familiar choices, including lasagna, Bolognese, and a selection of steaks and chops dressed for Italian restaurant duty in wine-based sauces. The earthy, glossy mushroom sauce draped over my dry-aged strip was the highlight of a plate dragged down by fingerling potatoes that missed out on either the prep or heat required for full-on Maillard magic. By contrast, the steak was cooked a shade or two past the requested temp of medium rare, making the sauce even more essential.

Steak | Hanna Raskin

Still, if my go-round with Salumeria’s red meat department didn’t persuade me to linger there, a man who reached the host stand before me one evening had to be discouraged from re-ordering his favorite steak before reaching his seat.

While I don’t recall how that deterrence was worded, I’m willing to wager it was respectful and kind. The service at Salumeria 104 would have been notable before the pandemic; nowadays, it’s downright disorienting when a server knows the food so well that he’s confident the fettuccine mare is better with a little extra chili oil in the tomato sauce—and cares enough to suggest it. I’m still reeling from the time I told a Salumeria 104 server that a paper towel dispenser in the women’s room was empty: She responded with the degree of gratitude that most people reserve for pay raises.

According to standard restaurant math, great service and a roomful of happy customers can cancel out middling food: That’s certainly the equation at a few of my favorite old-school steakhouses. Add in a wine list that’s on speaking terms with the food menu, and you have a better excuse than a waterfront view for turning out forgettable dishes. But I’d guess Salumeria 104 is seeing thousands of customers each month because it didn’t take the gimme.

Fettuccine | Hanna Raskin

Remember the fettuccine that my server helped perk up? It’s blackened by squid ink, which is a pleasant parlor trick, but what makes the dish special are the shrimp cozied up to the pasta. I’m wary of repeating sourcing claims without seeing the receipts, but the husky shellfish which ringed my bowl had a sturdiness and sweetness that suggested they weren’t subjected to long-distance travel.

All of Salumeria 104’s noodles are housemade, save for the spaghetti bejeweled with bottarga, which comes straight from a Barilla box. I nonetheless found that dish just as enjoyable as the pastas which could trace their local histories back to the dough stage, largely because its garlicky tomato sauce was staunchly acidic, which is just the sensation you’re chasing between starters and entrees likely to feature cheese or pork fat.

Spaghetti with bottarga | Hanna Raskin

On the cheese front, Salumeria’s Caesar is terrifically popular, even though—or, OK, fine, perhaps because—it’s composed without anchovies. While I wish the crowning disc of fried Parmesan on my salad had been crisper, I can understand why the dish is sized for multiple people.

That’s not my way of describing its scale: There really isn’t a single-serving salad on Salumeria 104’s menu. Likewise, the only way to order flavored gelato is “per la famiglia.” According to my server, if I didn’t want to shell out $22 for the whole shebang, my sole alternative would be a scoop of vanilla. (A better solution to the problem is a standout tiramisu that tastes more of coffee than cream.)

Tiramisu | Hanna Raskin

Of course, I don’t blame Salumeria 104 for fostering festivity with its party-sized portions. Yet so far as I know, my favorite Salumeria dish—a lush vitello tonnato, with its signature creamy tuna sauce softening the smoky edges of thinly-sliced veal—wasn’t designed for a certain number of diners.

Vitello tonnato | Hanna Raskin

In other ways, though, it’s emblematic of the restaurant, which takes sauces seriously and doesn’t shy away from luxury: If you can picture an ingredient filling a bathtub on a 1970s album cover, Salumeria 104 probably offers it. Salumeria 104 is the only place I’ve ever heard a server say, to a table punch-drunk with $24 truffle supplement opportunities, “That might be too much truffle.”

As for the appetizer, I liked it so much that a group sitting near me at the bar asked what I was enjoying. After I explained it, one of the women exclaimed correctly, “Like a deviled egg!” And then, in good Salumeria 104 fashion, we shared what was left on my plate.

Clearly, I should be spending more time in salumi stores.

Salumeria 104 | 60 Ocean Blvd., Atlantic Beach | 904-372-0285 | Monday, 5 p.m.-9:30 p.m., Tuesday-Thursday, 5 p.m.-10 p.m., Friday-Saturday, 4 p.m.-10:30 p.m., Sunday, 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. | salumeria104.com 

This review was produced in partnership with The Food Section, a James Beard award-winning newsletter covering food and drink across the American South.

author image Contributor Hanna Raskin is editor and publisher of The Food Section, a James Beard award-winning newsletter covering food and drink across the American South. Raskin previously served as food editor and chief critic for The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina.

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