No Masterpiece

Although there are highlights at Michelangelo's, expectations should be tempered.

I hear a lot of laments from people who, once they find out I'm a food critic, often bodily hinder me, begging for a recommendation for a good Italian restaurant. Of course Tucson harbors one or two, but they're usually so packed it's difficult to even get in through the door. I've long ago given up trying to recommend a good Italian restaurant. When beseeched to reveal a decent Italian eatery, I look the irritating party square in the eye and say, "Hey, it's Tucson. You want good Italian food? Live someplace else." This generally ends the conversation. As well it should.

Besides, as with most things, one woman's culinary delights won't necessarily appease another. I abandoned any sort of quest for the "perfect" restaurant long ago. These days I'm happy with a perfect plate or even a perfect moment. Adjusting one's expectations can often reveal unexpected moments of solitary joy or happiness. Or, perhaps, even a pure flavor.

And so when I walked in through the doors of Michelangelo's I held out neither hope nor visions of grandeur. I've been to Michelangelo's on occasion over the years. Originally, it was a delightful find so far up and off the beaten trail. Now, it's just a delight to find something left that's recognizable up off the well-traveled and ever expanding Oracle Road.

Michelangelo's always smells wonderful when you enter. The aroma of roasting garlic and marinara fill the air. The dining room is expansive with floor to ceiling columns, flowers, and a glass wall along the patio. The dining room feels welcoming and gracious.

As is the staff. There is a sense that a real dining experience is afoot, and to settle yourself for an enjoyable meal. The menu is certainly expansive--five full pages devoted to Italian specialties, from pasta to pizza, fish to lamb. Despite the fact that the dinner hour was in full swing all around us, we took our time to select what we felt would yield an enjoyable meal.

Many appetizers sound alluring and so it was with anticipation that we placed an order for the cozze tarantina, black mussels sauteed with garlic, tomatoes and white wine.

A classic combination, we felt confident this dish would be an easy way to begin the meal, especially since the server assured us that the mussels were fresh.

Why is it that the most emphatic servers only signal to the diner to pay heed? The mussels were not fresh. They were tiny and bitter and rubbery. It was true they'd been sautéed in garlic and white wine and tomatoes, but the quality of the shellfish pretty much ruined anything redeemable about them. We sighed and moved on.

The Aglio Arrostitto and Antipasto Michelangelo held a bit more promise. The roasted garlic plate was served with roasted red peppers, cambonzola cheese and served on grilled bread. Simple, fresh flavors uncomplicated by pretense made for a plate that carried its own. The antipasto was traditional: salami, pastrami, cheeses and marinated vegetables and a few olives made up a plate in keeping with expectation.

Calabrese pizzette arrived, fresh from the pizza oven. A diminutive serving, a perfect appetizer for two or more, the crust was thin and slightly sweet. Served bubbling hot with slivers of onion and fresh herbs, this simple pizza met with approval.

Modestly cheered, we steered our way through entrees. Our server seemed hesitant with his working knowledge of the menu. Perhaps this was because he was busy or perhaps this came from lack of working knowledge of a large menu, but a server should understand basic components of dishes a restaurant offers.

The first mistake was the Aragosta ravioli. The roasted red pepper ravioli were to be stuffed with lobster and topped with a saffron sauce. We were served lobster stuffed ravioli, but contrary to our waiter's assurances, again the seafood wasn't fresh. It was mealy and grainy and substandard. Likewise, there was nary a thread of saffron in the saffron sauce. We felt as if we'd been led astray by our waiter's assurances for the second time in the evening. Had questions been answered truthfully, expectations could have been adjusted accordingly.

Likewise, when we placed an order for grilled pork wrapped with pancetta and topped with gorgonzola but were served grilled pork with crimini and Madera,we were concerned. When we voiced our concern, we were told we were wrong. Our server insisted what we had ordered had been served. Being corrected in such a belittling fashion hardly builds goodwill on behalf of the diner, but we sat, glum and corrected, and not in the mood for crimini.

The capellini osteriche was simply delightful and added a buoyant note to a decidedly grim dining moment. Angel hair pasta had been lightly tossed with a lemony cream sauce. Oysters had been tossed in at the last moment until just warmed yet still succulent and moist. Although the menu said there was to be spinach in this dish, there was not. Still, the oysters and lemony cream sauce matched so well, we were pleased.

The final entrée we sampled, the agnello brasato, was another disappointment. Braised and grilled New Zealand lamb chops, topped with a port wine cream sauce and served with garlic spinach and potatoes with roasted peppers, should have been a simple and lovely marriage of flavors. For some inexplicable reason, the lamb had been cooked until leathery and dry. It is hard to ruin lamb, but this was pretty inexcusable. The potatoes were fairly lifeless. The spinach was marvelous, done to a turn.

Oddly, when the waiter spun by our table and asked how things were, he was met with blank stares. One of us had the presence of mind to blurt out that in general all was not well, that we weren't satisfied. He shrugged and said, "Oh. Sorry about that." Then left.

Sometimes these things happen in restaurants. They do. I am forgiving of a venue that is busy. And, true, some of the items we sampled were just fine. But the dominant note was the food had been rapidly and, in some instances, carelessly prepared. Perhaps these gaffes could have been forgiven had the service been more accommodating, but this was not the case.

Because we were good sports, we stayed for dessert. We sampled a tiramisu that was passable. It would have been palatable if it hadn't been topped with an inordinate amount of piped whipped cream that drowned any of the other more delicate flavors in the dish. A bread pudding was tender and moist and flat. Eggy and dense, it might be more appealing with some additional aromatics. A flourless chocolate torte (so described by our server) was actually a dense cake with a grainy, nutty texture. Accompanied by a scoop of hazelnut ice cream and intensely maraschino-flavored ice cream, this would be desirable for someone with a truly craven sweet tooth.

We left Michelangelo considerably lighter in the wallet and wiser in our set of expectations. This is a restaurant that is clearly popular and enjoyed by many--probably those Tucson residents who have tempered their expectations and know precisely what they like and how to order it. Such reservations are recommended.

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