At first glance, Meribo, a new restaurant in Covington, looks like many modern Italian restaurants. There are meatballs draped in red sauce, delicate hunks of burrata perched atop heirloom tomatoes and a healthy dedication to wood-fired pizzas and pasta dishes. But take a closer look and you'll find Benton's bacon in many dishes, fried oysters on pizzas and Gulf shrimp and grits with collard greens. At their chic eatery, owners Vinnie LeDonne and Gavin Jobe embrace a combination of Italian concepts and techniques using local ingredients while adding Southern flair. (The restaurant's name is a portmanteau of the Italian words meridionale, meaning southern, and cibo, for food.)
The pinnacle of this effort is the restaurant's signature Meridionale pie, featuring smoked pork shoulder, collard greens and sweet, soft strands of caramelized onion. The sturdy collard leaves hold up better than their more popular counterparts — arugula and spinach — curling and contouring in the blistering heat of the oven while retaining their characteristic bitter tang. Mozzarella and a juicy tomato base also top the chewy, flour-dusted crust, which is ushered blistering hot from a wood-burning oven.
The oven, with its shiny white-tiled dome, anchors the dining room and is used to cook more than just pizzas. Sizzling cast-iron skillets are filled with melted mozzarella cheese, red sauce and a dollop of emerald green pesto. The dish is served with thick pieces of toasted ciabatta glistening with olive oil. It's hard to pick favorites where melted cheese is concerned, but this one is as strong a contender as any. Wood-fired octopus arrives with chewy and charred tentacles nestled on a bed of creamy cannellini beans, which carry the essence of smoke thanks to nibs of bacon. Drizzled with pale yellow saffron aioli and served with warm slices of crusty bread, it's a hearty, warming dish that feels appropriate for autumn as the days grow shorter and cooler.
Thick, chewy ribbons of squid ink pappardelle are tossed with rich, full-bodied beef cheek ragout, showered with Parmesan and topped with a poached farm egg. When broken, the egg oozes creamy yolk into the pasta, and pistachio gremolata adds texture and dimension to the decadent dish. Linguine with clams features bouncy noodles coated in herb butter, snaked around tiny clams, broccolini and red chilies. It's a simple and satisfying dish, but the broccolini was overcooked and needed more crunch.
A short list of desserts includes tiramisu served in a rocks glass, with tiered espresso and cognac-spiked cookies nestled with layers of sweet mascarpone cheese. It's a classic preparation that, while not overly ambitious or exciting, delivers its simple pleasure.
Though Meribo is a casual spot with a simple approach, the restaurant's chic and sleek aesthetic serves as a reminder that this isn't a Sunday red sauce joint but a modern affair. Regional touches meet classic Italian dishes on a menu that plays it safe but delivers while doing so.