The polished mosaic tiles give the floors an antique shimmer as we walk through the bar into the dining room of Maggiano's Little Italy.
The red leather booths, the checked linen tablecloths, the vintage chandeliers that rise like champagne bubbles to the ceiling all have a vaguely familiar feel. That's because the corporate minds behind this red-gravy-and-meatballs chain didn't forget a cliche when they conceived this 1940s Italian nostalgia eatery, down to the Sinatra soundtrack and the old family photos.
Even the tuxedoed maitre d' seemed to have been recruited out of Central Casting, from the doobie-do flip of his Rat Pack coif to the Passyunk "sshh" of his South Philly lisp.
"I sh-ee a table sh-traight over there with your name on it," he said, leading us to a corner booth where a large photograph of somebody's nonna hung overhead. She gave me a stern look that seemed to say: "Eat! Eat! Eat!"
But, Nonna, did you see these portions? The food is piled onto platters so high, they look like Mount Vesuvius in mid-eruption, spewing gigantic meatballs, sausages, and lava flows of tomato.
The monster-portion policy is a fixture at the retro Italian chains that recently discovered our area, including Buca di Beppo, Vinny Testa's, and Maggiano's, which opened in May. I guess it's a good value when you get a hunk of lasagna as big as a Fiat. And leftovers are a sure bet unless you're a sumo wrestler.
Still, I detest this obscene abundance. Not only because I'd prefer smaller portions for less money, but also because it essentially reduces the great Italian American restaurant tradition to unbridled gorging.
It may be a selling point in Dallas, where the Brinker-owned Maggiano's chain initially conceived by Chicago's Lettuce Entertain You group is now based. And judging from the convention, courthouse and City Hall crowds that jam this 500-seat complex, on the ground floor of a parking structure beside the Reading Terminal Market, it may well fly in Center City, too.
But why? We have so many great old-style Italian restaurants in South Philadelphia that it is impossible not to compare the facsimile with the real thing, time-worn haunts such as Ralph's, Criniti, and Dante & Luigi's, and quirky nooks such as Roselena's Coffee Bar, where the recipes have descended through generations and the family memorabilia is real. Maggiano's has the look (in fact, it's considerably grander), but it can't quite compete in food and spirit.
Maggiano's is an "authentic Italian restaurant, too," insists general manager Marc Oppen. The kitchen makes everything from scratch, including 52 gallons of sweet marinara every day. And the Center City branch (another is soon to open in King of Prussia) has also made some local "connections" by naming one of its banquet rooms for the DiBruno Bros. cheese merchants. Maggiano's doesn't buy its cheese there, but that's another story.
To be fair, Maggiano's does a better job than it probably has to, considering its captive audience. The dining room is warm and comfortable, the sidewalk cafe is a very pleasant place to sit, the prices are reasonable, and much of the food is decent.
The roast chicken, fragrant with herbs and garlic, slips tenderly off the bone. Stuffed items such as the clams, the mushroom caps and the shrimp oreganata have a light, crunchy breading that defies the globbiness that usually weighs these dishes down.
The Tuscan-style mussels come in a nice garlicky wine broth with the addition of white beans, a clever textural contrast to the mussels. And, quite important, the meatballs are excellent, nicely seasoned softballs of ground meat and springy binding.
I was pleasantly surprised on my first visit by the quality of our meal. But it wasn't nearly consistent enough over the next three visits.
This was the first time I'd ever been scolded by a server for asking what was in a dish.
"Well, you ordered it," the server snipped, nodding to a wide gratin dish filled with a molten, cheesy pool of, I believe, spinach and artichokes.
I was especially grateful to a server who warned me that my plate of lasagna was "very, very hot," then reached across the table only to pass the dish into my bare hands. Ouch.
I would have ignored it if the lasagna hadn't been cooked to a mushy brick of meat sauce, whipped cheese and puffy noodles. Overcooking was a chronic problem, in the shrimp arrabbiata, the gummy gnocchi, and the spaghetti aglio-olio, whose sauce, usually the simple essence of oil and garlic flavor, slipped innocuously off the noodles with too much liquid.
Not that Maggiano's is afraid of garlic the kitchen goes through 20 pounds a day. But when their touch isn't too timid, the dishes practically breathe garlic fire, from the surprising burn in the creamy chopped-salad dressing to the forest of broccoli that had a bitter, burnt garlic taste.
There were some successes a tasty mushroom ravioli napped with cream sauce, a respectable tiramisu, and a rich, dark dome of chocolate zuccotto. The small selection of chops was also surprisingly good, a hearty prime sirloin and a massive, tender veal chop. But I made the mistake of ordering them "Contadina" style, and the heavy-handed embellishment of sausages, roasted potatoes, and dark mushroom gravy overshadowed the meat.
Subtlety is not a Maggiano's forte.
The veal cannelloni was submerged under deep waves of marinara that suffocated it in Boy-Ar-Dee-esque sweetness. The swordfish was intriguing with its meat gravy, but so overcooked that the fish disintegrated on the fork. The veal parmesan and chicken saltimbocca were gigantic (nearly a pound of chicken!), but so bland, so artlessly cooked, that I lost interest halfway through.
These are simple dishes. But when properly done, they can capture the satisfying homeyness of classic red-gravy dining, a genuine flavor of Little Italy that is more elusive than it would appear. Craig LaBan's e-mail address is email@example.com.