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PASTA TENSE

By A waitress's first day on the job is never easy. It's worse when the food she's serving is hit or miss. And it's sheer hell when her first customer is an anonymous restaurant critic.

Still, the poor woman we encountered at Vella's Italian Restaurant was a sweetheart who did her best. And since this eighteen-year-old place is a neighborhood joint, we did our best to be neighborly, too.

Vella's decor is straight out of the Seventies. The kitchen could be the last place on earth to pour--ugh!--RC Cola. But owner Sal Vella is trying. Although he admits he's had some problems with the help, he still thinks he serves a satisfying meal for a fair price. And much of the time, he's right.

If the meal ever makes it to the table, that is. Our waitress's maiden voyage started with a stream of forgotten items and service boo-boos. She inadvertently did us a favor by bringing the salads with our main course (perhaps she took the menu's "comes with the entrees" literally); otherwise, we would have had way too much time to gripe about the tired, brown iceberg lettuce heap adorned with cucumber slices and tomato wedges that had seen better days--at least a week before. I took two bites just to taste the tangy Italian vinaigrette on my salad, then made the mistake of sampling the weak, bottled Ranch on my companion's.

The bread also was late in arriving, but the appetizers had come quickly enough to assuage our hunger. The combination plate ($4.95) offers two each of Vella's starters. Although the crab puffs and sausage rolls were heavy, with dry, crumbly pastry wrapped around too little filling, the sausage pie had a compelling country-pate quality that had us picking up crumbs with our fingers. The standout of the quartet was the caponata: an antipasto of diced eggplant with pine nuts and raisins that was a welcome aberration from the usual fried eggplant, onions, olives, anchovies, capers and (sometimes) tomatoes. This caponata was smoother and sweeter; it was so good that we ate it without the accompanying garlic toast. In fact, our only complaint was that there wasn't enough of it.

Portion size certainly wasn't a problem with the chicken pesto ($7.45). A whole breast's worth of chicken strips had been coated with a mildly garlicky, sweet-basil pesto and strewn across herb-flecked fettuccine. The pesto was pleasantly heavy on the basil and the chicken an angel-hair's width from faultless--a few seconds less cooking time would have left it even juicier and more tender.

The Sicilian stuffed chicken ($7.45) was an equally good deal. A well-pounded whole breast was stuffed with a soft pillow of fresh breadcrumbs and oregano (the menu says "spices," but oregano was all I tasted) held together by melted Romano cheese. The overall effect was that of a homey, Grandma-inspired dish--not surprising, since Sal Vella says many of the recipes come from his Palermo-born mother, Maria. The fettuccine Alfredo mounded on the side had an ideal texture and a creamy, not-too-buttery appeal, but less cheese than I like (which accounted for its silky appearance).

Aside from the Alfredo, though, Vella's falls short with its traditional Italian specialties. Make that traditional Italian-American specialties: I never saw lasagne in all of Italy that resembled the overburdened kind served in the United States. This lasagne ($7.40) had size to recommend it, but little else. Although the noodles were fresh, all the life had been sucked out by a dry cheese poultice of ricotta, Romano and (not enough) mozzarella. The ground beef was elusive and the kitchen also stingy with its red sauce, an average, on-the-sweet-side puree.

Even more miserable was the manicotti ($7.45). The handmade egg pasta was treated better here, covered with more sauce but also with more of that dreadful clotted cheese. My choice of meatball (instead of sausage) didn't appear either inside the manicotti or on the side, but I wasn't about to bother the waitress.

The desserts also earned mixed reviews. With refreshing honesty, Sal admits he gets his sweets from local food distributor Nobel Sysco Foods, a company whose foods I find to be another split proposition. The cheesecake ($2.95) was definitely New York-style and wonderfully rich; we ordered it with the canned blueberry topping. Even better was the chocolate suicide cake ($2.95), a dense, dark chocolate cake leaning toward--but not quite reaching--the dry side. Between the cake layers sat more gooey chocolate, and a triangle of semisweet chocolate capped the wedge. The carrot cake ($2.25) was unremarkable, and the dessert of the day, coconut cream pie ($2.25), turned out to be a dismal glop of cheap whipped cream topping blotting out a fair coconut cream in a solid graham-cracker crust. One of the few things our waitress did know was to warn us against the mysteriously titled Magnificent Seven cake ($2.95); although she wasn't aware of its contents, she knew it was no good. We took her advice.

Our waitress at lunch was much less helpful--and she had no excuse for her dismal service. She began by seating us two tables away from another couple, despite the fact that we were the only four people in the place. Although initially we were thankful that she hadn't seated us at the table that's three feet from the men's room, which is right next to the kitchen--meaning odors can waft through either door--the conversation to which we were privy almost made us change our minds:

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