“Brutta ma buona” is a phrase that best describes Edo’s Squid. Though this literally translates to “ugly but good,” it’s an expression the Italians use with genuine affection to convey the idea of something, usually food-related, being rustic-looking at best, humble and outwardly unassuming, unpolished even, but undeniably great.
Wandering into Edo’s Squid, off a side street by the VCU campus, I couldn’t help but wonder if I had gotten the address wrong. The stairway ascending to the restaurant on the second floor was narrow and faintly musty; the carpeting, old and worn. At the top of the stairs was a nondescript, closet-like door.
As I stepped past the threshold into the restaurant, I found myself in what resembled an old-school osteria. The waitstaff, in the middle of casually conversing as they folded linens together at a table in the corner of the room, looked up to greet me with friendly smiles, then returned to their task.
The irregularity of the space imparts a sense of comfort: time-warped mustard-yellow walls, tables set with faded baby-blue tablecloths and shabby weave chairs, and wooden window sills, just a tad dusty and chipped around the edges.
The food at Edo’s Squid is delicious, but likewise stripped of all pretense. Wine is served in short glass tumblers. Pastas and other dishes come in outsize portions and convey a distinctly Italian generosity of spirit. There are no plating techniques here, save for the literal transfer of dishes from cooking vessel to plate.
The scungilli insalata ($11), an unexpectedly energetic conch salad, was an excellent start to our meal. Uneven ginger-like slices of conch, with the mouthfeel of porcini mushrooms, were dressed in a sort of deconstructed gremolata “sauce.” This sauce had bright pops of color and flavor from finely chopped parsley, capers, garlic and shallots; the whisper of heat from red chile flakes; and the refreshing pucker of lemon juice suffusing a pool of raw olive oil.
With some of its other seafood dishes, the restaurant succeeds by taking a much more understated approach. The fried squid ($12), with a light breading that contributed a potato chip-like crunch, was a straightforward yet satisfying version of this classic. The grilled branzino ($23), studded with sand-colored grains of garlic and flecked with red chile, was a dish you’d expect to find at a charming little eatery on the Amalfi Coast.
The larger-than-life pastas are particularly memorable. With the sharp punch of anchovies, olives and capers, the spaghetti alla puttanesca ($12), a crime scene of tomatoes bleeding out onto a heap of pasta, was bold and spicy and in-your-face. The crab spaghetti ($25), meanwhile, had a more delicate flavor. A thin dressing of crushed tomatoes lent a hint of sweet acidity that was nicely rounded out by tossing the pasta with some butter.
In a large bowl brimming with more of a consommé than a sauce was a tangle of spaghetti with clams ($17). Though the noodles were slightly overcooked, the underlying broth distilled from the clams’ own juices, along with a healthy amount of garlic and parsley, was so flavorful, I found it hard to resist taking long, poignant sips of it even after our check came.
The broccoli rabe pasta ($13), my husband’s favorite, was indulgent without being heavy: a mound of trapezoidal penne pasta, perfectly al dente, mottled with a creamy blend of ricotta and Parmigiano cheese, specks of broccoli rabe, and toasted pine nuts.
What I’ll continue dreaming about, though, is the hanger steak ($42). An unadorned plank of beef lying atop a white plate, the dish is not much to look at. But don’t be fooled. The outside of the steak was so crispy that its exterior grain had started to crackle and splinter like wood. Meanwhile, a simple sauce of clarified butter, spooned generously over top, had coaxed the steak’s rich brawny flavors from their slumber, while keeping the meat moist and juicy. The result rivaled the best of any New York City steakhouse.
Not surprisingly, since it opened more than 17 years ago, Edo’s Squid has gained a cult following among Richmond diners, each of whom seems to lay claim to the restaurant as their own well-kept secret. This perennial favorite remains a welcome departure from the wave of new restaurants across town.
It isn’t stylized or overly conceptual; it isn’t fussy or pretentious. With its unapologetically rough edges and stripped-down approach to dining, the restaurant, instead, continues to evoke the kind of beauty you can taste and feel, the kind that’s so much more than what meets the eye.
Justin Lo writes freelance reviews for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter or Instagram @justinsjlo.