STRIKE UP THE BLAND
There's nothing like having a child of your own to give the phrase "family-style dining" real meaning. Finding restaurants that are kid-friendly is only slightly more difficult than finding restaurants that are happy to have you pay your bill with Monopoly money.
Enter Armando's Trattoria, which not only calls itself a "family eatery," but actually makes people toting small, messy crumb-crunchers feel welcome--at least in the waitstaff-who-won't-roll-their eyes-when-you-walk-in sense. During both of our visits, the employees seemed to express sincere interest in our newborn, and the waitress at dinner worked magic with a family of four, two of whom were intermittently screaming (the kids made some noise, too.) It helps that the place has a dining area--really a faux-courtyard atrium--that is virtually childproof: washable brick-looking walls, painted wrought-iron furniture and an easily mopped, carpetless floor.
But then, it's not surprising that this restaurant should understand the importance of families. After all, it has several siblings: three popular gourmet-pizza joints and a new pickup-and-delivery-only place, as well as two related franchises. After seven years in the pizza business, though, owners Michael Abbondanza and Armando Sarlo decided to try "something different," Abbondanza says.
That something was Armando's Trattoria, which opened in an old Coco's last February. The idea was for this Armando's to cater to both families and fine diners by offering separate eating areas--if you have children in tow, you will be seated in the atrium unless you request otherwise--and such upscale menu choices as lobster-filled ravioli with caviar cream sauce (some of the recipes were created by Dennis Anderson, the former chef at Compari's). For those whose growing families have strained their pocketbooks, there are less expensive dinner entrees--although fewer than half are under $10--that are also less ambitious: spaghetti, lasagne and ravioli.
The portions are certainly family-sized. We started our dinner with the fritto misto ($6.95), which claimed to feed two but was plenty for four. A large zucchini's worth of slices, ten mozzarella logs and a sizable portion of calamari were all similarly--and simply--prepared with breadcrumb coating and a dip in the deep fryer, then served with a bowl each of marinara sauce and bottled ranch dressing. The difference was in the breading: The zucchini's coating was dark, the calamari's lighter and the mozzarella's lighter still, and each had been mixed with an unidentifiable herb that could have been parsley or oregano or tissue paper. The fried items tasted of nothing but breadcrumbs and their respective insides, which meant the zucchini was by far the best of the batch; the fresh vegetable had a wonderful consistency without any of the typically oily finish. The mozzarella sticks were the mediocre, previously frozen kind and the calamari had the texture of rubber bands.
The hot antipasto platter ($5.95) was more successful. The two fiesty sausages, apparently handmade, were fat and garlicky, with just enough hot red pepper to keep things interesting; the two large meatballs were the sort grandma used to make, with soft, breadlike interiors and a wee bit of spiciness; and the eggplant had been cut thin, roasted and covered with melted provolone. Only the garlic bread was a disappointment, since the thick slices of Italian bread lacked any hint of the pungent herb.
Also lacking was the bland minestrone that comes with the entrees (unless you'd rather have a bowl of iceberg lettuce with a pale tomato wedge). The tomato base smacked of canned, with no herbs to spice it up, and the soup could have used more carrots, celery, green peppers and cannellinis, too.
Maybe the kichen was saving all the seasoning for the manicotti ($7.50). A blanket of baked-on mozzarella covered two hefty pasta tubes filled with ricotta flavored with oregano, parsley, thyme and garlic. The dish was so filling that it was impossible to finish; we did have to scarf up the yummy meatball that came with it, though. Just as substantial was the chicken parmigiana ($7.95), a well-pounded, breaded breast that had been lightly fried and smothered with both mozzarella and Armando's slightly sweet, supersmooth tomato sauce. The chicken's sidekick was a helping of spaghetti with still more sauce.
As our entrees grew more expensive, though, their execution became more disappointing. The chicken piccata ($11.75), while adorned with a fabulous wedge of a polentalike, mozzarella-laced potato cake, was covered with a dull sauce. The orecchiette con funghi justified its $12.25 price tag with a liquidy cream sauce containing slices of porcini and shiitake mushrooms (that old Italian standard) as well as low-grade diced pancetta. But the real flavor came from basil, diced red onions and a massive (and just shy of intolerable) load of garlic.
The linguini con vongole ($9.50) at lunch was ridiculously overpriced. The large pile of linguini was topped with a smattering of shredded clam bits and two utterly tasteless just-steamed clams; the sauce, supposedly of garlic, shallots, marjoram, white wine, crushed red pepper, olive oil and clam broth, carried only the bite of barely cooked garlic, which left it bitter and me resentful over the waste of wonderful ingredients.
We had no complaints about the veggie calzone ($5.50), which housed more of that heavenly seasoned ricotta along with mushrooms, black olives, diced green peppers, tomatoes and onions in a pizza-dough shell--especially since it came with the restaurant's excellent red sauce. Armando's Favorite sandwich ($5.75), on the other hand, was a dry package of Italian loaf stuffed with prosciutto and buffalo mozzarella but with none of the moist, roasted red peppers promised on the menu.
Even dessert couldn't save the day. The normally easy-to-assemble tiramisu ($4.50) took twenty minutes to arrive. When it finally appeared, it was a tower of canned whipped cream over two pieces of shortbread that sandwiched pillows of mascarpone cheese to which rum and espresso purportedly had been added. You couldn't prove it by me.
Armando's makes all of its desserts except the gelato and the sorbetto--and even those were disappointing. Although the spumoni was good, the cappuccino-chip gelato ($2.75 for one scoop) had us wondering why this country is unable to duplicate the rich, creamy ice cream that is one of Italy's finest creations. Another traditional Italian favorite, the cannoli ($3.50), was wonderfully packed with candied-fruit-infused ricotta, but plonked down in a lake of strawberry sauce so sugary that I was looking around for the insulin cart.
When I spoke with Abbondanza later, he explained that the restaurant had been having "chef problems"--a distinct possibility, since some of the things we sampled at lunch bore no resemblance to his description of how the dishes should appear.
But even a substitute cook doesn't explain the bland ambitions of Armando's Trattoria. Hey, we may have kids now, but we still have tastebuds.
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