Off the Chain 

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A day or two ago I thought I'd take a ride. A friend had been mentioning a place he thought I should try — not an easy place to reach, he warned, but worth it. So one cold December evening my wife and I set off, over the Chickahominy River and through the woods. Just before dark, we unexpectedly drove past the cannons of Malvern Hill, through the soothing quiet of still-rural Virginia, then past a subdivision. Then another. Then back into the black woods until we thought we were surely lost. And finally, on the banks of the Chickahominy, we arrived.

The accordion player started his set at 7:30, but the aisles between tables were thick with tray-laden servers and jolly guests, so he abandoned his usual route and lingered in the dining room doorway. Later he returned to his piano. Carols reverberated against the rough-hewn beams overhead. Everything inside conspired to make us forget the cold: The warmth of the service. The blazing hearth. And some of the richest Italian dining you can drive to.

The Fox Hunter Grill is in no way what its name conjures. The patrons come as they are and usually come with family. The staff is as likely to speak with a thick Tuscan lilt as a local drawl. And the food is not British; it's soul-stirring Italian.

The head chef is Sicilian via New York, and the kitchen stations are manned by family. Vito makes the sauces, each to order. You think that doesn't pay off at the table? They send a bit of the old country on every plate.

The grilled, bone-in pork chop arrives in a glistening pool of natural jus. But — Merry Christmas to you — it arrives topped with lump crab and mozzarella browned beautifully in the broiler.

The pasta entrees are big enough for a family to share and feature loads of goodies. Sun-dried tomatoes, basil leaves, various wild mushroom varieties, tender roasted chicken, al dente broccoli florets, and no shortage of beautiful Italian pancetta and prosciutto.

I worked the line in a big Italian joint that served a mountain of pasta with every entrée, but the Fox Hunter kitchen takes sides to the next level. The accompanying pastas are paired to accent the flavor of each main dish, be it flank steak or trout. The side pastas are appropriately lighter than the specialties of the house, which run to the rich northern side of the cuisine, where butter and cream are staples.

On the night of my first visit, the specials included a gnocchi dish that enhanced the pure comfort of little potato dumplings with cheese and spinach ravioli, tortellini, pancetta, chicken and mushrooms, all in a creamy tomato sauce — the über-meal for a long, cold night.

Other options include gambari oreganata (shrimp dejonge by another name, with white wine and butter) or insalata alla Romana (a good traditional Caesar with snappy dressing and tomatoes), both for less than $10. A little more gets you penne nel pollaio with broccoli and chicken in palomino sauce. The aforementioned lombata di maiale alla Oscar (the pork chop) was worth every penny of $20.95.

I have a friend out in the Shenandoah Valley. Once a week he drives nearly two hours to get a meatball sub from a particular West End deli near where he grew up. Some food calls to us. Now that I've tasted those gnocchi, it doesn't seem like such a long distance to Lanexa and the Fox Hunter Grill. It's worth it to drive there and back to bliss out on hearty pasta and Vince Guaraldi during the holiday season. That might just be a new tradition for us. I'll have to note that on my calendar — we were lucky last time but should have had reservations. Seems everybody knows a pork chop and some gambari help to make the season bright. S

Fox Hunter Grill ($$$)
1428 Outpost Road, Lanexa
Dinner: Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday, 5-9 p.m; Friday & Saturday, 5-10 p.m.
Reservations recommended.
Live music Friday-Sunday.

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