The struggle to find good Italian food in Northeast Florida is real. We’ve tried dozens of restaurants from the state line downward and, while there have been tasty Americanized versions of Italian, we had yet to find an impressive authentic Italian experience. One that makes us feel like we’re actually in Italy. One that doesn’t use canned ingredients. We decided to continue that search by trying Terra & Acqua, nestled in a beautiful shopping center off Sea Grove Main Street. It’s a bit off the beaten path in St. Augustine so we were excited to give it a try after hearing lots of great things from friends. This event turned into a work meeting for 6 of us, so thankfully we got to try a lot of entrées to gauge the food.
The restaurant itself is beautiful. It’s a completely open restaurant with a direct view into the large and bustling kitchen where the fresh smells of basil and tomato sauce waft through the air. That much space without walls to break up the dining areas was different; it created the feeling of dining with 100 people instead of just our small group. If you’re looking for a quiet intimate dinner, this may not be the best choice. But if you’re looking for a lively and comfortable spot, look no further. Fair warning, at minimum the drink menu listed online for Terra & Acqua is not 100% what they currently have in the restaurant. I asked my coworker to order a lemon basil martini for me prior to my arrival and, while it is listed as one of their specialty drinks online as a “basilico” it caused quite a bit of confusion in the bar area.
The waitress brought us a basket of bread and oil as we decided on our entrées. There was a large centerpiece in the middle of the table so we struggled a bit with passing the bread and oil around. What confused us is once we finished that basket of bread (with six girls on a mission to carb load that didn’t take long) she brought us another. It would have been much simpler to have two baskets of bread from the get-go, one for each end of the centerpiece on the table. We placed our entrée orders and the waitress returned shortly, telling me that they were out of the linguine for my entrée request of “linguine con vongole” (clams, shallots, parsley, pinot grigio). I asked her to ask the chef to choose another substitute pasta that would work with the entrée, assuming that he would match a type of pasta to the texture of the sauce. Our entrées arrived fairly quickly even though the restaurant was filling up rapidly as it got later into the dinner time frame. It is evident that reservations are really recommended for Terra & Acqua on the weekends at least. On to the food assessments!
Pollo Al Mattone ($17): This entrée consisted of grilled chicken, grilled underneath a brick with a garlic, lemon, rosemary olive oil and served with truffled mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus. A chef friend told us recently if you’re going to put chicken on your menu at a high end restaurant, you better make it special. This chicken is special. It’s by far the juiciest roasted chicken I’ve ever tasted and full of bright, summery flavors from the rosemary and lemon. All mashed potatoes should include truffles to add the salty earthiness to the mild flavor, and the asparagus was perfectly tender without being limp. This is a highly recommended entrée for those looking for lighter (less pasta more protein) meals.
Caprese ($9): You can’t get a grasp on a good authentic Italian restaurant without trying their caprese salad. Terra & Acqua’s presentation is 5-star, with the layered basil, tomatoes, and thick sliced mozzarella stacked to one side of the plate and sprinkled with cracked pepper. On the other side of the plate was an artistic drizzle of balsamic with more shredded basil atop another drizzle of EVOO. I loved that the whole tomato (including the stem) was presented on this dish. It was beautiful and looked fresh out of the garden and tasted equally as good. This is a great starter to share or a light meal in and of itself. Also, extra points for being heavy on the cheese. It’s so depressing when the cheese to tomato ratio isn’t quite right.
Tagliatelle Boscaiola ($15): For our first pasta dish, we went with something simple and authentic – tagliatelle with mushrooms, pancetta, plum tomato sauce, and cream. This dish was rich with fresh al dente pasta and tossed with just enough sauce to create the perfect pasta to topping ratio. For fans of simple Italian flavors, this dish is it. The sauce is herbal, heavy, and comforting and it coats each tagliatelle noodle. The mushrooms were tender and flavorful and the pancetta added just the right amount of bite. For those who don’t want a full bodied red sauce, the cream lightened this just enough. This pasta dish was definitely two meals worth of pasta; we took home a nice to-go box.
Ravioli di Zucca ($15, v): For our second pasta dish, we chose a ravioli made with butternut squash and brown butter and topped with a sage and balsamic glaze. This entrée got a moment of silence from us. We were so impressed with the sweetness of the squash complimented by the rich brown butter and tart balsamic. This is a palette party for sure. This entrée size is significantly smaller than the Tagliatelle entree and may not be enough for hearty eaters. $15 gets you 4 raviolis, but they will be the best ravioli you’ve ever eaten. It’s a phenomenal vegetarian dish option.
Tuscan Ribs ($17, GF): When I think Italian I don’t necessarily think ribs, and I’m not sure this would have ever been an entrée I would have ordered myself. We were delightfully surprised by how amazing these ribs are. Truly fall off the bone, the meat is fork tender and melts in your mouth. You get a large portion of ribs complemented by two sides of white beans and the same roasted potatoes served with the chicken we ordered. This entrée is an excellent gluten free choice and will be a favorite of anyone who loves pork. Be forewarned though, we had a few bites that had very small bones in it so be aware of those. The upside to that is the flavor of the meat is much richer with all the bones included in the cooking process.
Alright, diverting from the list for my aforementioned entrée confusion, this entrée order got a little baffling. My food was delivered last and after I had taken pictures of my coworkers’ items I realized that my entrée was not at all what I had ordered. My intent had been for the chef to substitute in another pasta, but somehow that translated into subbing out for an entirely different entrée. What arrived was the Cioppino ($20, GF), a tomato based broth soup overflowing with different types of seafood including clams, calamari, and baby octopus. What a wonderful turn of events – this soup was fantastic. I forgot all about my want of pasta and took smaller and smaller bites to make it last. The clams were steamed until just tender, the octopus and calamari wasn’t at all rubbery, and the shrimp were massive and plentiful. I finished my bowl by taking the bread I’d saved and rubbing it through the last pool of soup in the bowl. This soup made me feel things. It’s just beautifully executed. In a mark of great customer service, the waitress only charged me for the entrée I’d ordered originally, not the $3 pricier Cioppino.
There was a tad more chaos when it came to paying our bills, as one check was returned without actually being charged and we had to send that back to process. I’m not sure if the few marks against the service were due to the busy restaurant (every table was full by the time we left) or perhaps it was just an off night, but nothing was dramatic enough to make me want to not come back. Two of my friends went the day after we went after seeing our pictures. Both are well familiar with true Italian food from travel, and both were floored by the authenticity of the dishes presented to them. Terra & Acqua is a hidden gem and is exactly what Italian enthusiasts have been searching for – rich, simple, delicious, authentic Northern Italian cuisine that will comfort your soul.