You don't get invited over to people's houses for dinner much once you become a restaurant critic. As you can imagine, I hear "I'd be too afraid to cook for you!" a lot, mostly from first dates and folks who aren't even considering an invitation. I can understand their paranoia -- hell, when I cook for new acquaintances I feel like my professional reputation is on the line with each bite.
Each time people assume my highfalutin gourmet sensibilities, I take umbrage. I tell them that I turn on my critic's palate only on assignment or when I'm putting out serious dollars of my own. Then I humble myself with a few examples of embarrassing things that I eat way too often. Like most of the cooks I've ever worked with, I down cheese steaks as eagerly I do a pâté de foie gras aux truffes. And I end my speechifying by stressing that I try to make my food criticism contextual: It's pure foolishness to judge a pizza parlor the same way you would a white-tablecloth bistro.
But despite my strident rhetoric, once in a while I eat a meal that makes me think: Damn, I am such a food snob.
The owners of Ristorante Il Porcino, a new Italian-American restaurant on Solano Avenue, are probably feeling their hearts sink as they read these paragraphs; I had two pleasant meals at the restaurant because I liked my servers and dined in the company of some of my favorite people. The food, however, left me cold.
Italian-American cuisine, everybody's favorite comfort food, is getting a little more respect than it did five years ago. After years of documenting "authentic" Italian fare, respected cookbook authors John Mariani and Lidia Bastianich have published books specifically on Italian-American cooking. Rocco DiSpirito's TV-created Italian-American restaurant -- no lardo here, just chicken cacciatore -- just got a nod from William Grimes, the New York Times' restaurant critic. And in the East Bay, similar (if less pedigreed) restaurants like LoCoco's are doing swell, partly because their owners are great at making their customers feel welcome.
Il Porcino doesn't have red-checkered tablecloths, but its menu looks like it should be spattered with the drippings from Chianti-bottle candles. The names of the dishes on the massive menu may be in Italian, but you won't find an unfamiliar ingredient or preparation.
The sister restaurant of Fremont's Il Porcino rose from the ashes of the Aegean Grill. The owners retained the beautiful hardwood floors from the previous tenant. They decided to "warm up" the large, open space, formerly white and Aegean blue, by sponge-painting the walls and installing enough antiqued plaster bas-reliefs to ornament a small palazzo. The best seats are clearly at the brightly lit window tables, which fill quickly, but once night falls, when you sit in the back you feel swaddled in the dimming, golden light.
And Il Porcino's young crew lacks some of the smoothness of a more experienced waitstaff, but they're uniformly sweet, with a casual cheer that fits in well with the neighborhood. They were happy to stop and chat with the chattiest of my dining companions, and left us alone when we got absorbed in discussion.
But the food they delivered was solidly, unshakably Olive Garden. We started with an antipasto platter for two. Kalamata olives and artichoke hearts, the two preprepared elements, were the high points of the plate. All the roasted vegetables -- the grilled zucchini and grilled eggplant -- needed more seasoning than a pass with the pepper grinder could provide. Thick slices of high-quality fresh mozzarella were placed atop tomatoes that came from a March hothouse, not a July garden, spoiling the effect. The roasted peppers were almost inedible, tossed with a little vinegar and an unpleasant amount of garlic, which did nothing to mellow their sharp flavor. I found myself pouring spoonfuls of the olive oil-balsamic mixture that was meant for the bread over my veggies, salting it all heavily, and scooping it up with lots of the spongy house-baked focaccia.
Another salad we ordered was advertised as a warm spinach salad with bacon and mushrooms. We got the spinach leaves, all right, but they came tossed in a bright, fruity vinaigrette with slices of juicy oranges and artichoke hearts. I had nothing to complain about -- except we hadn't ordered it.
Now, the cooks do make a good marinara, and it shows up frequently on the menu. Spiked with bits of black olive and fresh basil on a sautéed calamari appetizer, the sauce ended up sopped on my focaccia, because I didn't enjoy it on the too-chewy squid. (Squid is such a tetchy meat, ready to turn tough the second you keep it in the pan too long, which had clearly happened.)
That marinara was also the best thing about a "rollini" special, a close spiral of fresh pasta sheets, ham, and mozzarella that were liberally sauced and not so liberally baked. The pasta had a perfect texture, silky but not soft, but mozzarella was the wrong cheese to use. The roll should have been something oozing and a bit messy; instead it was undercooked and bland.
My friends and I enjoyed a couple of the secondi piatti. The pizza della casa had a light crust that inflated and crisped in the oven, and retained its texture throughout the meal, not sogging down under the weight of mushrooms, sausage, onion, artichoke, and cheese. And an involtini di pollo -- chicken breast stuffed with spinach, prosciutto, and mozzarella -- stayed tender, the simple white-wine sauce brightening the heavy mozzarella-dominated filling. But an order of veal scallopine alla erbe was too chewy to finish, and its puckery white wine-lemon sauce was guilty of overcompensation.
Desserts finished the meal in the style announced by the salads. The chocolate in the chocolate mousse had not been completely melted, leaving the otherwise fluffy concoction grainy with little shards of chocolate. I liked the profiteroles: high-quality store-bought. If you like the creamier end of the tiramisu spectrum, Il Porcino's high-whipped number is for you.
Snob or no, I wanted the food to be either more adventurous or more carefully prepared -- better yet, both. At present, Il Porcino is still struggling to find its groove. Or else it has, and it's just not one that I get into.