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Restaurant Reviews

Populist Pasta

The Italian menu is likely to appeal to most everyone: pastas, panini, antipasti, salads, calzones, and thin-crust pizzas. The décor is cookie-cutter direct: clean brick columns, wooden floors, and tables covered with white or red-and-white checkered cloths; walls painted in warm colors, a few shelves upon them stocked with blue-and-yellow...
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The Italian menu is likely to appeal to most everyone: pastas, panini, antipasti, salads, calzones, and thin-crust pizzas. The décor is cookie-cutter direct: clean brick columns, wooden floors, and tables covered with white or red-and-white checkered cloths; walls painted in warm colors, a few shelves upon them stocked with blue-and-yellow boxes of DeCecco pasta, others lined with bottles of imported water; an open kitchen emanating vaguely tomato-ish aromas. There is a full bar. Archie's Pizza Gourmet offers fresh, uncomplicated Italian food in a pleasant environment and at family-friendly prices, a simple plan that has thus far paid dividends: Since it opened on Giralda Avenue's restaurant row sixteen months ago, its 75 seats have been consistently filled with the fannies of appreciative locals.

Our meal began with a basket of soft focaccia alongside a plate of green-hued olive oil and freshly ground pepper. Appetizers that cover well-trod terrain include salmon and beef carpaccio, eggplant parmigiana, mussels, prosciutto with melon or mozzarella, and tuna tataki -- how'd that get in here? Well, as I say, this is a crowd-pleasing sort of place, so the tataki is perhaps a nod to that person in your group who's still steamed about being outvoted over going for sushi. None at our table of four were in that predicament, so we shared "Archie's Antipasto," an unequivocally generous platter of balsamic-marinated mushrooms, thin slices of grilled eggplant and zucchini, arugula, cherry tomatoes, fresh mozzarella cheese and beefsteak tomatoes, Genoa salami, and prosciutto.

On another visit we started with a pair of bountiful salads -- the chef salad had so many ingredients, in fact, that I suspected the kitchen crew had thrown in virtually any comestible they could find in the walk-in fridge.

Tossed in a bed of mesclun lettuce leaves were fresh mozzarella cheese, Gruyère and Gorgonzola cheese, mushroom slices, cherry tomatoes, pimiento strips, snippets of asparagus, thin squares of ham, nuggets of grilled chicken, baby corn, and hard-boiled eggs -- I'm not certain, but there might have been some artichoke hearts in there as well. The dressing, a mild honey-mustard, managed to complement the myriad mix-ins. Pico de gallo salad was built upon a similar base of mixed greens, with avocado, asparagus, four long strips of slightly dry grilled chicken, and a sweet bacon-citrus vinaigrette.

Pastas don't exactly wow the palate but are as well prepared as those you'll find at our most popular moderately priced Italian joints -- and less expensive, almost all under ten dollars. Penne al quattro formagio was cooked just right, the noodles smoothly coated with a politely pungent blend of mozzarella, Gruyère, Gorgonzola, and Parmesan cheese (suggestion: charge a dollar more per pasta entrée and bring a real parmigiana to the table). Pappardelle al telefono, with pink tomato sauce, basil, and pine nuts, was likewise prepared with aplomb, the pasta firm to the bite, the sauce heady with smooth tomato flavor (though the pine nuts could have been omitted -- they don't make much sense in this dish).

A hot and hefty offering of lasagna Bolognese, served in the individual casserole it was cooked in, featured a firm layering of meaty red sauce, ricotta cheese, and noodles, with a baked Parmesan crust. Whatever white sauce it supposedly contained must have been absorbed during cooking -- the lasagna wasn't dry, though it could have been wetter. No such problem with spaghetti scoglio, the pasta, shrimp, calamari, mussels, and clams tenderly soaked in a bowl of thin, white wine-boosted clam sauce.

The one thing I didn't much care for at Archie's Pizza Gourmet was the pizza. The multiple toppings were fresh and the sauce agreeable, but the flat-rimmed crust was flimsy and tasteless. We started with the "garden" pie topped with untrimmed, unwieldy stalks of arugula (some pieces up to six inches long) that were heavily coated in caesar salad dressing. The other ingredients -- mozzarella and Gorgonzola cheese, thin slices of ham, raw mushrooms, and an ever-so-slight scattering of artichoke hearts -- were lost beneath the greens. So was the pizza itself, which was simply not stout enough to support such a heavy load.

If by "gourmet" they mean interesting goings-on upon the crust, then yes, these are gourmet pizzas -- other toppings range from melted brie with either prosciutto or green apples, to the ever-perplexingly crowd-pleasing "Hawaiian" with pineapple and ham. Sane people can order a Margherita with mozzarella cheese and tomato sauce -- really not a bad pie, but neither is it capable of conjuring anything beyond mere satisfaction.

Desserts are homemade but aren't the type that will inspire curiosity as to who the pastry chef is. The brownie á la mode was a small, steaming-hot, molten-centered square of rich chocolate dusted with confectioners' sugar, with a small scoop of vanilla ice cream by its side. More of a flat bombé than a brownie, but tasty. The apple tart á la mode, like the brownie, was microwaved to a hotter state than necessary; in the process the crust took on the texture of one of those street-vendor pretzels, while the filling remained sweet and gelatinous.

I don't expect much in the way of fine service when dining in a pizza-pasta parlor, but Archie's team of cheery, amiable waiters were discombobulated in almost comical fashion as they struggled to meet such challenges as taking orders and placing down flatware. Presumably language is to blame for some of the mixups, like when I asked for an extra plate and was brought a bottle of olive oil. (I was, in fact, a bit off-put when a couple of the waiters spoke to us in Spanish -- servers should start with the tongue of the country they're working in, then proceed to a second language if need be). Still the waitstaff was genuinely friendly and doing their jobs as well as can be expected from poorly trained people.

That they're not better trained is surprising, as this isn't the only Archie's -- management has had a chance to cut their teeth on these things both at the original Archie's, which opened in Bógota, Colombia, in 1993, and at another branch in Key Biscayne. They do have the rest of their formula down pat, though: Archie's aim is to please in an affable, affordable manner, and it ends up doing just that.

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