When in Roma
Sometimes I imagine other restaurant reviewers sitting plushly in front of giant, high-resolution computer screens, scrolling long lists of dining recommendations e-mailed to them by their well-organized, rigorously maintained network of knowledgeable food contacts. My own method of choosing places to review is, contrary to what some might think, only sporadically decided by placing the Yellow Pages on the floor, opening it to the restaurant section, and seeing which dining establishment my cat's paw lands on first. I use plenty of other more scientific criteria as well. Like walking streets and peering into unfamiliar storefront windows, and occasionally relying on what we in the newspaper biz call a "tip," which is how I learned of Sapori di Roma, a cozy 46-seat trattoria tucked between 69th and 70th streets on Collins Avenue; it's doubtful I would have found it otherwise.
The Sapori enthusiast said all the right things to pique my interest, describing it as being analogous to those intimate, informal, old New York-neighborhood-type Italian restaurants with straw-wrapped Chianti bottles on the tables and an elderly woman rolling out pasta in the kitchen. The words home-cooked, inexpensive, and fun threaded their way into the description as well. Upon entering Sapori I immediately saw that my tipster was right about the ambiance: It looks just like those family-run red-sauce joints, the Chianti bottles conspicuous not only on vinyl-covered tables but hanging from the ceiling as well (other bottles containing wine or water seemingly line just about every horizontal plane that exists). By the front window is an antipasti display with prosciutto, mortadella, hard salami, marinated mushrooms, roasted peppers, artichoke hearts, eggplant, and grandiose wheels and wedges of hard Italian cheeses like pecorino Romano, Parmigiano Reggiano, and Provolone. You can help yourself for $9.95.
Our waiter was a friendly type who magnified his Italian mannerisms as if auditioning for The Sopranos. He had a smile and tag line for every dish, like "Atsa good choice," or "You gonna love this, I guarantee." Some people are charmed and entertained by this manner of service; others find it intrusive. I'll only say that he effectively fulfilled his functions as a waiter, excepting a misunderstanding regarding one of the nightly specials.
I asked if the dish, four-mushroom ravioli with Alfredo sauce, came as a starter or main course, to which he smiled and said, "However you'd like." I said I'd like it as an appetizer, and about a dozen deftly simmered pasta squares puffed with portobello, porcini, cremini, and shiitake mushrooms did indeed show up soon afterward with the other starters, smoothly coated in garlicky cream sauce. The problem was that I was enjoying what should have been an appetizer serving of the pasta but obviously was a main course, for $16.95 -- same price as two of the most expensive entrées, garlic shrimp and New York sirloin.
The rest of Sapori's starters read like finalists in a countdown of the most common Italian restaurant antipasti: shrimp cocktail; beef carpaccio; prosciutto with melon; mozzarella with tomatoes and basil; bruschetta; steamed mussels; fried mozzarella sticks with marinara; and fried calamari, a puny portion of rings whose grease-soaked coatings fell off into the side dish of marinara sauce upon dipping (guess I shouldn't complain that the table next to us received an order that looked twice as large). Alternative beginnings: a wooden bowl of minestrone lacking pasta and beans but tolerable as a tomato-based vegetable soup; and an average, thin-crusted margherita pizza.
A dozen pastas are divided on the menu between "homemade" and "imported." The former group is composed of gnocchi with four cheeses; ravioli in pink cream sauce; a trio of fettuccine (Alfredo, Bolognese, and with shrimp in brandy-saffron cream sauce); and lasagna that attained a nice balance between ground meat, oozing mozzarella, fresh sheets of noodles, and a light tomato sauce -- best dish on the menu. A gnocchi special with two types of dumplings (potato and tomato-basil), would have been praiseworthy as well if not marred by a barrage of Parmesan melted into the middling tomato sauce, a recurring problem here. Better idea is to let diners spoon on the cheese themselves.
That's just how they served the linguini alla puttanesca, one of the imported pastas that are paired with predictable sauces (such as pesto, carbonara, clam, and primavera --which is so out of fashion it could soon make a comeback as retro-American-Italian food). Black olives, capers, and anchovies provided a pleasantly salty tang to the perfectly cooked pasta puttanesca, but canned tomatoes and chopped parsley took the place of what were supposed to be fresh tomatoes and basil (in Rome they would have used oregano).
A main course of veal cutlet agro verde (meaning "sour greens") was touted as being sautéed with lemon, white wine, butter, and parsley, but the three strips of veal, which were somewhere in the state between tender and not, came in a creamy pestolike sauce. Baby carrots and Brussels sprouts were served on the side, the latter cooked the old-fashioned way, meaning until any semblance of texture had been boiled into oblivion, though they actually were very tasty in a bath of sautéed garlic; I wouldn't have objected to a starch. Other dinner options include veal Marsala, parmigiana, and saltimbocca; a few chicken-breast treatments; and fish of the day, which often is sea bass.
Chicken and veal selections are reasonable enough at $12.95 to $14.95, but some items appear overpriced -- relative to this sort of restaurant, that is. A glass of house wine, for instance, poured from a bottle of the size usually reserved for christening battleships, is no bargain at $6. Nor is any $16.95 pasta, even as a main course, that doesn't include shellfish, truffles, or some other ritzy frill. As far as the $2.50 shot of espresso -- that would have been all right if I had ordered one. In fact it was brought to me by a food runner without any request on my part. I accepted it because, as this had been my third visit, I thought it to be Sapori's gesture of goodwill toward what might have appeared to them to be a newly acquired regular. Then the waiter came along a few minutes (and few sips) later to ask if I had ordered the espresso. "No, I thought it was a treat," I replied. He told me it was supposed to be for another table, then asked if it was okay.
"Yeah, fine, I was thinking of ordering a cappuccino."
"Do you want a cappuccino?"
"Want some hot milk for the espresso?"
"No thanks, I'm really finished with it."
"Well," the waiter said with a shrug and another of his smiles when presenting me with the check, "you got an espresso instead of a cappuccino" -- his way of letting me know I had been charged. It's not technically wrong to have billed me, but it would have been a more generous gesture to have comped the coffee I didn't order -- and a savvier business decision as well in light of Sapori's numerous empty seats. Ditto the way our ravioli mixup was handled on the first visit.
My tipster correctly identified some of Sapori's strong points (homemade food, charming ambiance), but I'm not so sure about the inexpensive part. A single diner who orders a glass of house wine, a fried calamari appetizer, the pasta special as a main course, a cannoli, and cappuccino, would end up paying, with tax and tip, about $50; skip the appetizer and it's still $40. I grew up in a regular old Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn, and when I return to visit I can still have a better dinner than Sapori offers for less than that. Truth is I can get superior Italian fare for the same money or less at pasta places right here on the Beach. My cat is pointing out some of them right now.
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