Italiano’s Famous Chain Restaurants
My birthday passed, but tonight was the birthday of my friend’s wife. She chose an Italian chain which will remain nameless. Why? Well, because it is what it is. Its not a bad place, you could do worse at any strip mall pizzeria pretending to be an Italian restaurant even if it is Italian immigrant-owned. Also, I don’t want to put a place out of business that has good intentions or a friendly atmosphere, great people working there who actually ask you several times if everything is ok. And yes, every time they asked, including the manager we had to stop chuckling and say “yes everything is fine”. We knew what we were getting into before we walked through the door. Besides, it was his wife’s birthday and we didn’t want to beat up on her too much, especially since she loved her meal, and she isn’t Italian. So, her birthday, her choice, we just went for the ride. Besides, my meal and wine were free since we celebrate my birthday and her’s the same night out since our birthdays are only a couple of days apart.
So, on to the heart of the matter. There are many chains out there that capitalize on a theme. Mexican… serve frozen margaritas, nachos, fancy bright Mexican decor, some South of the Border vintage (or vintage-like) photos, signs and roadmaps and you are all set. Its the same with Italian chains. Some red & white checkered table cloth, vintage 1920-30s photos of Ellis Island or Italian immigrants, Sinatra & Dino music playing in the background and you are all set. Again, its a great atmosphere, friendly, fun, maybe even romantic for a first date if you are on a budget and in college. One of the other good things I can say about this particular chain is, it does remind me of one of my favorite places in Manhattan’s Little Italy which probably does not exist anymore.
So, going into it with an open mind (honestly I did try for the first 20 minutes). I ordered an Apertif which is a pre-dinner cocktail. Nothing too strong, but its supposed to get the tastebuds started. A classic Negroni is what some fancier New York restaurants would serve which is equal parts Campari, gin and sweet vermouth with a slice of orange as a garnish and/or to squeeze into your drink. This is their version.
Its a quality gin, passion fruit liquor, Campari and “fresh” sour mix (whatever that is). For those of you who don’t know, real bartenders and mixologists don’t use sour mix from powder, liquid or anything else. Its simply fresh squeezed lime juice with sugar and/or simple syrup made from sugar (not corn syrup). No problem, if I liked the drink I would recreate it at home with real “fresh” sour mix. Bit sweet, tasted like grapefruit juice with Campari. They served it in the right glassware, and not bad for $5, no complaints, just not my type of drink, but it was the only aperitif on the menu. Ok, so I took a couple of sips and gave the rest to my friend, she liked it. I ordered a great glass of wine. A “Super Tuscan” Frescobaldi. $11 per glass. granted, the glass was probably more than a glass, its served in an oversized wine glass more than half full, but for $11/glass it should have been 2 glasses. Everyone knows that wine in restaurants has a triple markup. That means, that if you would pay $15 per bottle in the store, they would typically charge $45 for that same bottle. There are reasons for that first of all, there is storage to consider, plus they pay the same price for liquor as we do. The laws are so strict that they cannot buy it at wholesale prices, so they make up for it tripling the price, which in all fairness goes to pay the bartender, storage space, or in the case of wine, a climate-controlled area.
Naturally as in any restaurant, especially Italian, chain or otherwise you get the basket of bread. The olive oil on the table was faint yellow and clear. It was not extra virgin oil, but if they say it was olive oil, it has to be, but I could not taste it, the oil was thin, light and the only thing that gave it flavor was the fresh black pepper from a grinder on the table. In fact, the black pepper had a tremendous amount of flavor, fresh, spicy, it was probably the highest quality product on the table. I am glad there was no butter on the table, but I wonder how much money they are saving by not using extra virgin olive oil or even a better quality olive oil. You can see the color of the oil below next to the flatbread pizza.
On to the heart of this, its the food. Everyone loves calamari, so its really hard for any restaurant to get this one wrong, though they can. This place got it right, very tasty, light, perfectly fried, however it was a bit too salty for everyone at the table and when you put a cup of marinara dipping sauce on the plate, it leaves little room for calamari we each got about 3-5 pieces before they were all gone (there were 3 adults 2 children). This was a winner, just too small of a portion.
Since there were 5 of us, we ordered another appetizer. The “artisan” flatbread, which is basically a fancy name for very thin crust pizza. You have your flatbread, your sauce, some cheese, a slice of fresh tomato, fresh basil and this is what it looks like below.
Again, it was over salted from the grated cheese. I tasted something sweet on the bottom. They dusted it with sugar. Why, I don’t know, I guess to give it more flavor, but it was not working. I know Burger King dusts their french fries with sugar, but that is to give it a more golden color when they are fried. You do not taste the sugar at all. It was an odd combination, on what otherwise would have tasted fine.
Now, here was the kiss of death. A classic, labelled a classic, resembling nothing like the classic. Baked Ziti. Baked ziti is really fairly simple and even simpler to make: boil your ziti pasta, penne, rigatoni, or other tube pasta, drain, allow to cool down before adding ricotta cheese, mix well, top with marinara sauce, grate or layer with mozzarella cheese on top, place in the oven until the cheese is fully melted, and you can even turn on the broiler to get that cheese nice and toasty brown (which I love). No such luck here. The photo on their website looks much different than what you are actually served, and that is not just because I took the photo with an amateur camera. Its clearly not baked. Its boiled, and they bypassed the baking process, which left you with just boiled ziti, some sauce, no ricotta, and just a scant handful of cheese melted in the center. The mozzarella cheese was highly processed, you can taste it. IN fact, my friend’s 11-year old daughter said “the cheese tastes weird”. I couldn’t have said it better. I didn’t have a word for it, but something about it was just not right. It was bulk processed cheese used in low end fast food or frozen food products.
The birthday girl got the 4-cheese ravioli and it was pretty good. The portions were huge, and the good part is, you get to take a 2nd frozen portion home. Sure they are charging double ($14) but the great thing is if you order one of the “classic” pasta dishes, you get the 2nd of your choice to take home free. They other great thing is you can eat one, but take home something different. I took home the “Mom’s Lasagna” I will update this post later to let you know how that was.
While knowing what un-authentic ethnic restaurant is, you know certain stuff is not going to be made with fresh mozzarella and shortcuts will be made. But if you label it as a classic dish and you label it “baked” don’t you think they should at least not insult their guests by serving something that is NOT in the classic style with the known ingredients and not baked? If they would only drop the word “baked” from their “Main Street Baked Ziti” I would be ok with it. Sure, even in Italy recipes vary from region to region, but I’ve never seen baked ziti that was not baked and did not have ricotta cheese mixed into it.
The desserts were ok, but great oversized portions we could share. The Lavazza espresso was not bad. We were given small coffee spoons instead of forks to eat. Not sure what happened there, but its fine. The price was right, the portions were big, the food was adequate. But the authenticity was completely lost.
On the way out my friend had to use the restroom, I was looking at all the celebrity photos on the wall and read the comments they left. My favorite was from Newt Gingrich who said “A GREAT Italian restaurant”. Newt will drop out of the Republican race for president in a few days. I rest my case.