Missing Ingredients

Ristorante Italia fails the details test

Cooking Italian food is a lot like painting a room: Everyone thinks they can do it, but to truly do it well, one must pay attention to the details.

Ristorante Italia--Metro Restaurants' newest concept, located in the former City Grill location--suffers painfully from that lack of attention to details.

For our dinner visit, we were seated promptly; soon, the light, parmesan-seasoned house bread was delivered to the table. A large (read: heavy and awkward) bottle of extra-virgin, organic, first-press, Sicilian olive oil sat on the table for dipping. Other tables were offered balsamic vinegar as well, but it was never mentioned to us.

We had a good view of the dining room, except for the open pizza oven. Tall pillars dominate, with two skylights above. A lounge is on one side, and a smaller, enclosed dining room is on another. A patio sits on the far side of the lounge. Brown tones dominate, all the way down to the napkins.

We ordered the intriguing parmesan-encrusted lasagne bites ($6.50) and the gorgonzola mushrooms (which promised pine nuts, fresh herbs and tomato fresco, $6.50) to start. For entrées: the cutlets Roma ($21.50) for John, and the pork osso buco ($18.50) for me. We each ordered a glass of wine: a barbera ($8) for me and a pinot grigio ($10) for John. The wine list was long and well-balanced, but the prices seemed a bit high.

We also asked for two glasses of water, which only appeared after we flagged down one of the bussers many minutes later. The poor guy had to come back to the table, because he didn't have enough water in the pitcher.

The lasagna bites were served with a pancetta cream sauce. Instead of bite-sized pieces as the name implied, these were considerably larger. Heavily breaded and short on pasta, they were a real disappointment. Even the dipping sauce lacked all of the advertised flavors.

The mushrooms fared no better. Pine nuts? Seemingly missing. Gorgonzola? Just barely. There were two sauces presented--a tomato sauce and a basil sauce--and neither stood out. The description and the final product didn't match.

John's dinner consisted of only two thin slices of veal that had been dipped in an egg batter before being sautéed. This was accompanied by a side of linguini with amatriciana sauce (guanciale--cured pig's jowl--or pancetta, tomatoes, onions, chile peppers and pecorino cheese). John took a bite and then asked me to check it out: The veal was drowning in salt, making it inedible, even after he scraped off the breading. This classic dish had been totally ruined. The pasta was not much better, as there was an odd aftertaste to the sauce.

Considering all of the salt on John's veal, I was stunned to find that there didn't seem to be a grain on my pork. Then there was the off-putting presentation: Sitting atop a bed of bland mashed potatoes was this Fred Flintstone-style (large, bone-in) hunk of gray pork, with only a trace of osso buco sauce. Yes, the meat was tender, but there was no flavor.

I grabbed the salt shaker on the table, but it was empty. When attempts to get a server's attention failed, I went to the table next to us to "borrow" a shaker. That's when a server appeared; he tested our shaker (I guess he thought I was kidding) and then exchanged it with a shaker from another table.

We both left copious amounts of food on our plate and ordered the polenta cake ($3.50) with blueberries. Again, the kitchen failed. This little cake when done right is sweet, crumbly, light, moist and never needs more than a sprinkling of powered sugar. Italia's version was dried out and tasted more like day-old cornbread. The blueberry topping didn't add a thing as it was over-baked; even the blueberry sauce served alongside couldn't salvage it.

The restaurant fared much better during our lunch visit, though there were still missteps. Take our appetizer, for example: We ordered the calamari ($9.50). We waited and watched as others got their food, and the server made a point of coming to the table to tell us that it would be just a few minutes more. After those few minutes passed, she returned to explain the delay: Apparently, the fire hadn't been turned on.


When the calamari (which itself was OK) did arrive, accompanied with two sauces--the house marinara and a "lemon-butter, I think," according to the server--those sauces were barely lukewarm.

To Italia's credit, we enjoyed both of our entrées. John had a panino with eggplant, roasted red peppers and mozzarella ($9) that came with a pesto pasta "salad." I had one of the lunch specials, a mushroom risotto ($9.50).

The sandwich was nicely grilled, and the vegetables inside were rich and redolent with olive oil. It could've used a bit more cheese, but still it passed the panino test. The pesto pasta (linguini) salad was merely so-so.

My risotto was packed with fungi and pencil-thin bites of asparagus. The dish was topped with grilled red peppers and slices of a grilled portobello mushroom, which added a nice, smoky tone.

For dessert, we ordered the chocolate salami ($3.50). Chocolate and nuts had been formed into a roll and were then sliced in such a way to resemble salami. The four slices were just enough for a lunch dessert.

This town has its fair share of good Italian places, and as it stands now, Ristorante Italia doesn't stand up to them. A little fine-tuning is needed, but for now, I'll enjoy my Italian food elsewhere.

One more note: When I called to confirm the hours shortly after lunch, nobody answered the phone. Instead, there was a message ... informing me that Ristorante Italia would be opening in May.

Details, details.