Share fare

At Cappellini's, more is not always the merrier

How much personal space humans require is mostly a cultural thing: Mediterranean men kiss each other, American men shake. And the ways we invade each other's space are ritualized, codified, and fenced around with rules; after all, one person's act of affection is another's act of aggression.

That's why sharing food is often elevated to a religious rite. In some churches, the chalice is still passed--everyone drinking from a common cup, so everyone shares the sacrament as well as any viruses going around. In other churches, everyone gets a sanitized paper cup. But individuals have a lot of different rules, too, about their personal space--especially if you're talking about their plate.

Of course, willingness to share your food is the No. 1 job requirement of a critic's "dining companion." Everyone I take to a review dinner has to be positively joyful about allowing me plate-raids. If you're the type who wants to eat what you order and prefers that others do the same, you can't go out with me, and you should avoid Cappellini's, a new Italian restaurant in Addison based on the manners of sharing.

We're pushing out west on Belt Line now; "restaurant row" extends right up to Marsh Lane. Cappellini's is the big brick villa on the south side of the street just before the intersection. If you get a little rush of deja vu as you enter, it's probably because you've been to Macaroni Grill before. The faux country-Italian ambiance, with opera blaring and bottles of olive oil, is reminiscent of Phil Romano's hit restaurant. The difference is a matter of scale: The dining room at Cappellini's is huge, as big as a brew pub, and the tables, the flatware, the plates, and even the booths are oversized.

Our waiter warned us the portions were as enormous as the furnishings, but I am always eating on behalf of hundreds, you know, and besides, I never mind taking home a shopping bag full of food. So we plunged right in and ordered a bottle of wine (which, contrary to the "big" theme, is served in little tumblers) and the baked antipasti platter that arrived on a tray that took up a good portion of our 5-foot table.

The tray held several stuffed vegetables: zucchini, cut lengthwise and piled with seasoned bread crumbs; stuffed eggplant Siciliana with bits of purple-black skin striping the cheesy filling; stuffed mushrooms that were actually Titleist-sized veal meatballs wearing mushroom caps. It was plenty for all four of us to enjoy full-sized servings. Plus, there were two cannelloni, filled with bits of smoked chicken camouflaged in creamed spinach; two thick wedges of slightly pasty polenta flecked with rosemary; four slices of bruschetta, thin pieces of country bread spread with chopped tomatoes; and chiffonade of basil. Quantity and quality seem so often to be opposites, especially when you're talking about a menu, that the half a dozen soft and tender mussels served with a chunky marinara sauce was a pleasant surprise.

Before the appetizers, our jovial waiter brought a basket of bread--thin garlicky flatbread, airy, rosemary-flavored foccacia, and slices of a simple country loaf. It's too bad the good breads were served with mediocre olive oil with floating garlic cloves. And it's too bad we didn't have more bread with the half orders of soups, although then I think the meal would have defeated us. Our waiter brought two lidded buckets of soup and bowls for everyone at the table, then ladled out the pasta fagioli and Tuscan white-bean soup as requested.

We all ate a little bit of both, sprinkling the pasta fagioli with condiments--basil, fresh tomatoes, prosciutto strips, and croutons. You don't see pasta fagioli on very many menus here: The steaming country broth is filled with tender beans, bulked out with pasta, and rich with chopped vegetables, and it's the kind of soup of which you could make a meal. Of course, soup is also great to take home because it microwaves so well. Put it in the bag, please.

The Caesar salad--another half order--was enough for four, but none of us wanted much because it was flawed with that acrid olive oil again. And the waiter shook his head in wonder when we ordered entrees--a platter of inch-thick, juicy pork chops, the meat rolled around sun-dried tomatoes and cheese so that each loin round was red-centered as if rare. A bed of fresh spinach cushioned the chops, which were excellent, but a flow of grainy, overblended mashed potatoes flavored with powdered garlic was a disappointment.

There are several platters featuring roast chicken garnished in different ways. The chicken contadina was the most beautiful dish we were served, the whole bird cut into eight parts and arranged luxuriously with oiled slabs of sauteed red, green, and yellow peppers, slippery onions, tubes of Italian sausage, and marinated tomatoes. But surely this chicken had been roasted early in the day and reheated.

That steamy, stale taste evoked sad memories of past leftovers and reminded me once again that the simplest foods can be the most difficult. If you must roast a chicken ahead of time, eat it cold. More of those meatballs were nested in vast swirls of spaghetti in tomato sauce, as well as more fennel-scented sausages. As if.

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