Little Italy

San Remo, Plano's neighborhood Italian restaurant, is a nice place

Driving north on the Tollway last week once again, I made a vow: I won't complain any more about going north.

No more diatribes about cookie-cutter developments and Dallas clones, I promise. I'm sure you're as sick of reading them as I am of writing them.

I'll just make the interminable drive to my new home-away-from-home, Frankford Road, in (morose) silence. Perhaps I will learn to love it; perhaps I'll change jobs.

It's clear to me after the past week that I need to shut up, buy a Tolltag, and put it in cruise control or become a gardening writer. Restaurants are multiplying out there in Plano like Ebola (everybody else read The Hot Zone?), and sooner or later I'll have to visit them all or quit.

Both restaurants I visited this week were in the same strip of Frankford Road, in a brick shopping center that also includes Mi Cocina and Sonny Bryan's (What is Sonny Bryan doing in Plano? Oh, zip the lip.)

The thing is, it's hard to be objective about distance. San Remo, for instance, is so far for me to drive for a plate of lasagna that it would have to be incredibly exceptional for me to get excited about it. That's hardly fair. To me or it. Heck, even if it was handmade by Marcella Hazan, I doubt I'd drive that far to eat it. Well, maybe. But it isn't.

San Remo is a perfectly nice, friendly Italian restaurant. Some of our food was good, some very good, some fine, and some okay.

If it was around the corner, a few blocks away, well, to be truthful, I'd still never go there. I am a food writer--I never get to eat where I want to; I only eat where I have to.

But--in theory--I might visit San Remo often. It's a nice, neighborhood Italian restaurant, and it serves its neighborhood well. What more do you want?

So. It's in a strip mall; that means the windows, draped and swagged in formal fabric, are at the front and the restaurant is long and narrow, ending at the kitchen. A bar on one side is separated from the dining room by panels of swirled stained glass; the other wall is lined with Impressionistic paintings by an artist who evidently invested in a limited number of tubes of paint--bridges, churches, boulevards are all portrayed in the same misty, doctor's-office hues.

We were greeted at the front door--a warmer welcome at lunch than at dinner--and shown to a white-draped table. All very tasteful.

At dinner, we tried a couple of specials, a veal chop and a rack of lamb sauced in sherry with peppers--a refreshing change from rosemary and red wine. Our first course, a stuffed artichoke, was overcooked. They're usually undercooked (so you wonder what the appeal is of scraping your incisors along a leaf with the texture of a shoe tongue). This one, which fell apart at a touch, had a crumbly stuffing full of cheese. "Homemade" bread was the kind of loaf usually served on a mini-bread board with a serrated knife, to be followed by a visit to the salad bar and steak. That is, it was fresh-baked, but you wondered who made the dough. Here it was topped with tomatoes and cheese, like bruschetta. Butter comes in little foil-wrapped blocks.

"Salad Caprese," with rounds of meltingly soft fresh mozzarella, was made with unbelievably sweet, ripe tomatoes (where in the world did they find them?), great, purple-black olives, thoughtfully pitted, and a dribbling of winey-sweet balsamic vinegar. Now you really wished for topnotch bread.

The house salad was a mixture of greens, the kind that come pre-mixed with the carrot shreds, with a glop of what certainly appeared to be cocktail sauce over the top. Very weird. You kept looking for the boiled shrimp--and if I had found any, I would have been pleased. As it was, I had the vague feeling that something was missing.

Lobster ravioli were cheese-stuffed pillows, rounds of rather thick pasta in a death-defying lobster-base cream as thick as Velveeta and twice as cloying, studded with teeny bits of lobster meat. The dish was every bit as rich as the name led you to believe, but not as good. An enormous serving, considering the richness.

For lunch, a selection of specials comes with bread and salad--a deal for $6.95. The gratin dish in which mine was served has outlived its usefulness--someone please throw it away. All three lumps under the blanket of melted parmesan were nestled in thick tomato sauce. Ricotta-stuffed manicotti was truncated to fit the dish, a square of meaty lasagna had a lingering afterburn of flaked pepper, and a double-stacked pillow of cheese ravioli completed the trio. The oil was bubbling up around the edges when it was served; 20 minutes later, when I was able to eat any of it without scorching my tastebuds, I decided it was fine.

Pollo carciofa was a tender poached (boneless) breast, topped with a light, lemony sauce and half an artichoke heart with wafers of sliced garlic and flakes of red pepper.

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