Surprise for a snob

The Italian Oven satisfies children and soothes their fussy parents

To pick up a recurring theme of these reviews, I'd like to remind you once again I'm a snob.

This week's example concerns snobbish preconceptions: I expected to hate The Italian Oven. I'm sure most of my high-falutin' foodie friends would hate it, and I'm glad I didn't invite any of them to review it with me. After all, it's a chain (more than 80 units with four in Dallas so far and plans for over 100 stores in Texas), and food snobs hate chains by definition, hate uniformity and love individuality, hate predictability and love serendipity.

Above all, they--we--hate menus that involve a lot of trademarks and tricks. And The Italian Oven seems the silliest yet.

Think about it. What's the gimmick here? An oven. We've been through woks, crock pots, skillets, and grills. And the newest trend in restaurant cooking, the appliance, the cooking method that's advertised the most is (ta-da!) the oven. I mean, Aunt Bea would be right in step with this so-called trend.

It's a reaction to "fast" food, of course, to microwaves and frozen dinners and every convenience food that's adulterated American and therefore worldwide cuisine. (That McDonald's on the Champs Elysee is a big hit...) The thing is--the sales pitch is--that oven cooking takes time, and time is the most valuable thing we have. If it takes time, it must be good.

So, I may be a snob but, hey, that's just my professional self. After all, I'm only half food critic. I would hope that all dining critics are only half food critic. To those whose life is consumed by eating, I would say, get a life. You're supposed to consume the food, not the other way around.

Anyway, the other half of me is Mom. And any mother I know would rather eat mediocre lasagna with a happy child than terrific lasagna with a screaming, fussy child. So, speaking to moms: you'll like The Italian Oven, gimmick or no gimmick, chain or no chain. I know they've opened a jillion of these places; they're cookie-cutter formulaic restaurants of the first rank. But it's a great place to go with kids.

We visited The Oven in the middle of Christmas mayhem, a frazzled time of year, when the kids are always naughty and you're never nice. On a rainy night the place seemed bright, warm, in a sort of canned country Italian style, with jars of olives and dried pasta (all for sale) and red checks everywhere, with a big open kitchen along one wall.

"Look how many waiters!" said our daughter, and there were hordes of them. Count 'em, yes, 28 servers, all in red aprons, like so many Santa's elves, all to serve the (maybe) six tables that were taken. (The press packet says that each store employs 60 to 70 employees. Why?)

I've never had such hand-and-foot service--not at the Mansion, not at The French Room, not at the most expensive restaurant in town. And The Italian Oven is outstandingly inexpensive, especially if you compute cost in proportion to quantity.

"It's our policy to serve the children first," our friendly main waiter told us as he handed around the menus. "If you'd like us to wait, let us know, but we try to arrange it so the parents can eat in peace."

See, that's a concept I can get right behind. Speed is one thing, and lots of restaurants do "fast" pretty well. Peace, now. That's a strong idea.

Another waiter brought the kids their own menu, child-sized silverware, a bag of dried macaroni and some string to make a necklace, a puzzle, and coloring book and crayons. Everyone gets a bib. If you have little bitty kids, you can choose from three sizes of high chair.

Anna ate marble-sized meatballs in smooth tomato sauce over a mound of soft spaghetti; when our food arrived, yet another waitress offered to take the kids up on the children's bridge to watch the pizza chef who made a special piece of dough for our daughter while my husband and I drank a tumbler of wine and ate in relative quiet, actually finishing our sentences when we could remember what we were trying to say.

On one of our waiters' recommendations, we started with "fryed" zucchini (that's a trademark, that "fryed" word; food at The Italian Oven is "fryed," not fried, because the owner is named Fry. Yeah, that's the kind of stuff that makes those snob sensors overload). A basket of wide-cut strips, lightly battered and deep-fried, were surprisingly good for what is basically junk food left over from the '70s infatuation with squash. An order of "Italian Tomato Bread," soft pizza dough topped with tomatoes, lots of garlic, chopped scallions, and grated Romano, is another featured starter, a little like bruschetta for denture-wearers; we could have ordered the "Mushroom Bread" (featured on table tents) instead.

Nothing on the menu costs more than $8; for $7.75 I ordered lasagna, a giant rectangle of slightly overcooked noodles glued together with ricotta and tomato sauce: bland, inoffensive, almost anonymous in its lack of distinction, but eaten in tranquility while the kids worked the puzzles on their menus. A pile of penne pasta tossed with chicken meat in tomato sauce with hot Italian peppers was more flavorful; it started slow, but the peppers built up to some real heat.

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