Chain, Chain, Chain

We left for Vegas in the early morning light, a cooler stocked with drinks in the back. It's barely a five-hour drive from LA, but once through the San Bernardino Mountains, most of it's desert travel. In my '84 Civic that, among other charms, did not feature air-conditioning, we hoped to avoid the breath-stealing daylight heat.

We couldn't avoid dawn, however. And a sunrise that shocked us -- traveling east at a constant 90 mph, we experienced it over and over. For hours it seemed the sun never completely breasted the horizon, maintaining a steady relationship with our windshield, and our vision. In the lower Mojave, without trees and buildings to block its daily commute, the sun has astonishing glare potential. We sat in the Civic like food in a microwave -- cooking from the inside out.

Fortunately, Las Vegas soon loomed in front of us, shimmering like an hallucination. Icy-cold casinos beckoned with complimentary cocktails. After distressing our palates at a powdered-egg breakfast bar (all-you-can-eat for $2.99), we hit Caesar's Palace like a rainstorm in the desert, showering cash.

In a moon- and sun-less casino, all time passes the same. Lighting, deliberately dim, prevents the gamblers' awareness of anything but their own migrations from craps to blackjack to roulette tables.

But a stomach doesn't recognize these orbits. It punctuates the hour with growls and snarls, a warped cuckoo clock. And a body runs through powdered eggs the way it would prunes, leaving you running on empty.

All this to say that eventually dinner hour arrived. In other casinos, a search for meals often leads into the labyrinth of the hotel, or into the overheated streets. Not so in Caesar's. A brilliant marketing and design team recently added an upscale shopping and dining plaza to the casino itself, thereby eliminating the need to leave the establishment at all.

The Forum Shops is no ordinary mall. We were awed by its design -- stone fountains, Roman sculptures, and a high-domed ceiling painted the blue and white of a real sky, complete with cumuli. It's amazing how much the corridors resemble the daily streets of Italy, even down to the quality of light and the choice of designer leather-ware shops.

Some of the restaurants are as exclusive as the boutiques. (Los Angeles's Spago's promises a sister location). Others are aggressively modern, but with a more reasonable price tag. We ate in a trattoria called Lombardi's, so dedicated to the Italian architecture theme that a "sidewalk" terrace had been constructed. At Lombardi's, gamblers on break can enjoy the vino -- and vitality -- of a Mediterranean town square; spouses, bored with slots, can twirl pasta and watch the square's bizarre mechanical statues dance; children can spoon up authentic gelato sundaes.

I remember a long line, a pushy waitress, and a high-backed booth. I remember risotto gorgonzola, a rich (if small) concoction spiked with wild mushrooms, and outstanding gnocchi, large and airy as a cloud, a rosy marinara backlighting them like a sunset. But most of all, I remember the sign we glimpsed on the way out: Lombardi's, soon to open in Miami.

Dining out is always a gamble (though in some homes, it's dining in that's the risk!). So many unseen factors, even in oft-frequented restaurants, can affect the outcome of a meal: the freshness of ingredients, the mood of your server, whether or not it's the chef's day off. But as Alberto Lombardi, owner of Lombardi's, Inc. knew intuitively, there's a way for diners to minimize the odds.

It's a concept familiar to every restaurateur involved in bastardizing his original brainchild. Show a diner a well-rounded meal -- fine cuisine, pleasant decor and service, and a bill that won't break him -- and that diner is bound to return. Especially if he's on vacation in a city foreign to him, and discovers, like a bank, a branch of the same restaurant.

Alberto Lombardi began his empire with a trendy spot in the West End of Dallas, the city into which he immigrated in 1973 from his native Forli, Italy. Lombardi's, opened since mid-November in Bayside, joins similar protectorates in Phoenix, Atlanta, and Orlando, bringing his total number of possessions (including the one in Las Vegas) to six.

Lombardi's typically opens new doors in tourist-attractive areas (Bayside is the perfect example). The idea is to draw foot-traffic, enticing visitors with an outdoor cafe, open kitchen, and gelateria. It's a philosophy that has worked well. So well, in fact, that Alberto Lombardi plans a new eatery for each coast in the upcoming year. For the past week, I've been amusing myself by guessing possible locations. Boston's Faneuil Hall, Newport Beach, California's Fashion Island, New York City's South Street Seaport, and Washington, D.C.'s Georgetown are my top four predictions.

Ultimately, Lombardi hopes for two new restaurants annually. This plan could place him, eventually, in every upscale mall in America. What an enticement for hungry shoppers, who clearly, because of their tourist status, never had Italian food this good! What competition for The Olive Garden! What an ego!

If it's true that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, then Lombardi may want to call in a jeweler. Perhaps the desert air had stimulated our appetites. Or the zest for winning money transferred itself into a zest for winning weight. In any case, our meal in Las Vegas was as commendable as our meal in Miami was tasteless and poorly serviced.

Consider: the gnocchi I sampled in the West, though unexpectedly large, were boiled dumplings, appealing in their disregard for gravity. Here in Miami, they were pan-fried like arepas, those corn-and-cheese novelties with which you nauseate yourself at state fairs. Though this could have been a stimulating innovation, they tasted like undercooked, gluey lumps of fried potato flour. And this was only a side dish!

To be fair, the grilled marinated chicken ($12.50) that accompanied the gnocchi alla Romano was made palatable with garlic and oregano. The antipasto misto ($5.50) was a refreshing starter of cold salads, including fava beans, chick peas, marinated mushrooms, marinated artichokes, and eggplant, as well as the typical assortment of meats. And the homemade focaccia ($3.50), served fresh and warm from the oven, complemented this plate enormously with its seasonings of rosemary, olive oil, and Parmesan.

The rest of the meal deserves not quite so much credit. Our pizza of eggplant caponata and mozzarella ($8.50) had little, aside from its thin crust, to make it recommendable. Caponata, usually a delicate mixture of eggplant, olives, sun-dried tomatoes, capers, and pine nuts, is overwhelmed at Lombardi's by the capers, an unpleasant vinegar flavor when used indiscriminately. The mozzarella, covering the pizza like a pie top, is too dense for the proper balance. A smoother, creamier cheese, perhaps a fontina, would better complement this dish.

Several of our problems stemmed from the inept service. Our waitress was completely unprepared with menu knowledge. She knew so little about the wine list she didn't recognize which one we ordered and therefore couldn't write it down. She had neglected to discover the risotto of the day (an uninteresting arabiata, as it turned out) as well as the fish of the day. Crime of all crimes, she served me the wrong meal, even after I repeated my order twice and pointed it out on the menu (she was constantly reading over our shoulders, a habit I despise even as I contributed to it).

Despite our difficulty in ordering, I was eventually served tagliolini al limone con pollo ($10.50). Though the menu lists cream in its description, I had been looking forward to a wine-and-lemon-reduced sauce hardly touched with it, the way I've had good limone in the past. I pictured wrapping myself in long noodles of luxury after twisting in a few grinds of fresh black pepper (white pepper would have been a rare pleasure). I was therefore unpleasantly surprised by the small mound of pasta rising like an island above a lake of cream, which begged rather desperately for salt.

Salt was not lacking in the plate of smoked marlin mixed with vegetables ($13.50) that a companion ordered, although this was because of the nature of smoked fish and not the nature of the chef. Still, billing smoked marlin as a "fresh fish of the day" selection is a misnomer. Even if Lombardi's had a smokehouse on premises, I doubt very much smoked anything can be considered fresh. The chunks of marlin were generous, but this dish also floated in cream, an ingredient not included in our server's description. It seems the only way to avoid such calcium deposits is to order an unequivocal pomodoro.

A full eclipse of the moon attracted us more than the Italian ice cream for dessert, although we could have shared both on the outdoor terrace. The smart insistence on sidewalk dining, plus a photo on the wall of the Las Vegas restaurant, confirm that these eateries are indeed linked by more than a name. But I'm still not convinced, because of the disparity of our experiences, that Lombardi's Bayside isn't a sloppily executed franchise that will ultimately insult the tourist population with its preparations, just as the whole of Lombardi's offends the resident population with its chain-restaurant mentality.

LOMBARDI'S Bayside Marketplace, 401 Biscayne Blvd., Suite 125; 381-9580. Open daily from 11:30 a.m. until midnight.

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