Unruly children can be the bane of a restaurateur's existence. Not surprisingly, some restaurants ban kids altogether, a policy that is discriminatory to well-behaved youngsters and their parents. This summer the Palm Grill in Key West, a high-end but by no means overly tony eatery, refused to take our reservation for nine adults and one small child. That's one big bill to turn down -- and a lot of potential word-of-mouth repercussions.
Even though I don't have kids it's gratifying to see that a couple of newer local restaurants are quietly offering a compromise, creating an atmosphere that could be termed "upscale homestyle." One such establishment is Italianni's in the Kendall Marketplace Mall on North Kendall Drive, the dark heart of subtropical suburbia. The solid pizza-and-pasta fare, reasonable prices, and size of portions are all family-style; the decor, rich with mellow woods and bright with vinyl checked tablecloths, creates a sense of old-fashioned dinnertime intimacy.
Or it would if the booming main dining room weren't quite so cavernous (together, the two dining areas seat 200). And if the line for tables were a mite shorter. And if the scurrying staff were a tad less jaunty and a bit more patient. Conceived by the corporation that inundated America with happy-go-lucky TGI Friday's, Italianni's exhibits that same exhausting cheerfulness, the staff rattling out hyperbolic variations on "Hi, my name is Mary and I'm not really your server, I'm your best friend."
That's the bad news.
The good news is that this two-month-old restaurant, formerly a Dalt's, is only the second Italianni's, so quality control is still foremost in the staffers' minds. While the dishes may not reflect the self-conscious sophistication of Miami's other Italian kitchens, Italianni's ranks several notches above the typical Italian chain. And though the management eschews the vapid video-game strategy of keeping the kids entertained, Italianni's does provide a means for amusement: Children are encouraged to decorate their own pizzas, which are taken to the ovens for baking and served with the rest of the meal. (This method actually works quite well, keeping the youngsters busy with arts-and-crafts anticipation.) Another possibility: If you wait in line long enough, your kids are bound to fall asleep at the dinner table. After that it's a fairly romantic dinner for two.
The menu is stuffed with more standards -- pepperoni pizza, eggplant Parmesan, spaghetti with meatballs -- than a Sinatra LP (which, incidentally, serves as mood music), but Italianni's accommodates the adventurous palate as well, with choices such as tomato-garlic soup, shrimp-pesto pizza, and fettuccine carbonara with a sage-cream sauce.
A half-order of fried calamari, suggested by our waitress, was one starter. Dipped in batter and then fried, dime-size rings of body meat were tooth-tender and seasoned perfectly. The main challenge consisted of finishing the plateful before the breading got mushy A the pile was so big we double-checked that it really was a half-order. A quick dunk in the zesty marinara sauce that accompanied the platter provided passable camouflage when we reached the bottom of the dish. Spinach and artichoke formaggio was a far superior starter. Served hot with six slices of garlic-butter Tuscan bread, the cheese dip was pungent with Parmesan and mellow with ricotta. While chopped artichoke and spinach added color and texture, the creamy cheese base remained the true draw. We also sampled a slightly spicy, pesto-flecked house focaccia that was too well-baked for my taste but which went beautifully with the formaggio.
Two salads proved sufficient to feed our table of five. The caesar was billed as big enough for two or three, and it was. (A larger version serves four to six.) Crisp romaine was topped with grated Parmesan, commercial-tasting croutons, and a mediocre dressing that was heavy on the garlic and light on the anchovies. The "chopped salad," which contained romaine, zucchini, cucumbers, tomatoes, olives, and crumbled feta cheese, was given a tomato vinaigrette that proved more sweet than zingy. It was, however, enormous, despite being listed as a single serving.
Our appetites largely satisfied, we nevertheless moved valiantly on to the main courses, which were uniformly generous in their proportions if not completely successful in their execution.
Served atop a bed of spinach, veal saltimbocca was dry and chewy, the prosciutto and mozzarella that had been layered on top lending a too-salty finish. If an Italian restaurant can be judged by its chicken as well as its veal, the "chicken Italianni's" made up for the saltimbocca's failings. A roasted half-chicken was basted with a smooth, stock-rich pan gravy and adorned with mild, rosemary-roasted potatoes that resembled steak fries in shape and crispness. Sausage, cherry peppers, and peperoncini contributed piquancy to the
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poultry, which fell off the bone like a child from a bicycle.
Grilled steak Tuscany, a New York strip enhanced with warm olive oil, garlic, oven-dried tomatoes, and roasted mushrooms, boasted wonderful earthy and fruity flavors. But the cut was tough and served much rarer (nearly raw) than ordered. As this dish tops the price list (at $14.95), we expected better.
Among the pasta plates, an aromatic angel hair with chicken and spinach was huge and tasty, strips of white meat chicken, leaf spinach, and toasted slices of garlic nesting in the ultrathin noodles. A lovely winy, brothlike sauce, the vino perhaps not cooked completely off, was potent and strengthened the bland boneless chicken. Though overcooked, gnocchi were also good, small potato dumplings covered with a tangy but oily romano pomodoro sauce. The cheese's zest helped bring out the delicate flavor of the potato flour, and a delicious side dish of meatballs input some needed flair. The two large meatballs were spiked with sausage, which made them taste like, well, sausage. (Sides of sausage and peppers are also available.)
The wine cellar, unexpectedly, was a trouble spot. I asked for three different bottles before I hit on a Valpolicella the restaurant actually had in stock. Beer was a better proposition: Peroni and Moretti are sold in bottles, while various lagers are available on tap.
Only two desserts -- grilled bruschetta with mixed berries and creme brulee -- are made on the premises. We opted for a white and dark chocolate mousse tartufo, the fabulous double chocolates washed down with hazelnut coffee and a chilly cappuccino that required more heating. Somewhat like the young Italianni's, which, despite the crowd outside waiting for tables, is just beginning to get warmed up.