Battle of the free bread

A new Italian eatery tries to one-up La Madeleine

Everyone should have a failure strategy, and I believe I've developed a good one. In the event of a total professional and personal meltdown, I plan to survive by hanging out at La Madeleine eating mass quantities of their free bread and jam while reading this free publication. Dressed in my one remaining suit of decent clothes, I'll be mistaken for a businessman waiting for an assignation, and no one will mind me as I eat my fill. Given the proliferation of La Madeleines, it could be years before my cover is blown.

When it is, I'll come to this place. I may even come here first. Owners Jane and Francesco Secchi, also the proprietors of Ferrari's Italian Villa in Addison, have borrowed some elements of the La Madeleine formula (including free bread) and one-upped them to create an eatery that combines culinary flair with convenience.

And, yes, it's located on Parker Road in Plano, a place with all the aesthetic charm and winning restaurant selections of your typical strip mall. Il Grano Italian Bakery and Cafe fits right into the depressing scheme of things on the outside, being a brick box with windows that looks pretty much like any of the dozens of chain restaurants in the area.

Once inside, though, it's clear that your taste buds are in for a surprisingly good time. It's not so much the faux Italian courtyard look that inspires hope, but the look of the antipasto and bakery items at the first "food station" you come to. Il Grano employs the food station and order slip technique made popular by a restaurant chain in Canada (I forget its name) that allows Canadian diners to enjoy French food without the usual high tab and haughty service.

The drill is that you are issued an order slip when you enter the restaurant, and as you meander from food station to food station, servers check off your selections. At the end of the line, a teenager in the restaurant's livery issues you a beeper that starts quivering like Robert Tilton in mid-harangue when your food is ready. When you've finished gorging and are on your way out, the cashier totals the damages. You don't have to tip (their servers are surprisingly chipper, regardless), and you get your food fairly quickly, even when the restaurant is crowded, which it definitely was during a recent Saturday lunch.

The food stations include a soup, salad, and antipasto display, featuring a lineup of calabrese (a tomato salad), eggplant, portobello mushrooms, slices of mozzarella cheese, cooked spinach salad, cold pasta, and several other selections, all of them tempting. At $5.99 for five items, the antipasto selections make a terrific lunch or light dinner by themselves. Next to them are the dessert bakery items--eclairs, cream puffs, pies, cakes, cookies, and other antidotes to self-control.

The pizza station offers a choice of four pizzas (soon to be expanded to six) cooked in wood-burning ovens. There's a ham, artichoke, roasted pepper, eggplant, and brie pizza; a tomato, roasted garlic, basil, and olive oil pizza; a chicken, peas, and cheese pizza; and a pepperoni pizza. Individually sized, they come hot, zesty, and able to hold their own with most of the wood-fired pizzas available in town.

The pasta station also features four selections: spaghetti, ravioli linguini, and lasagna. I chose the pasta special, a penne pasta in a cream tomato sauce with parmesan cheese and portobello mushrooms. It came in a big, Jethro Bodine-sized bowl, piping hot, with the pasta cooked to just the right degree of tenderness and the sauce robust without being cloying. Not bad at all.

There are also hot chicken and sausage sandwiches, cold sandwiches, and salads. Beer and wine are available by the glass at a small bar, and though you have to go through that weird ritual of joining some kind of club for alcoholics that dry areas require, the management makes it quick, painless, and cost-free.

The dessert items taste as good as they look under glass--a rarity--and include a particularly fine chocolate cake that comes in an enormous wedge too large for any but the Nate Newtonesque. The eclairs, chocolate and vanilla, also are too dense and rich to be consumed at one sitting.

Grain for all of the breads, and the majority of ingredients for other menu selections, are imported from Italy. Il grano means "the grain," not surprisingly, and breads take on different tastes and textures depending on the origin of the grains from which they are made. Diners can order fresh Italian bread made from grains grown in Sardinia, or a loaf of bread made from Tuscany grain. The pasta also is made with imported grain, and bags of the stuff are stacked here and there in the restaurant as evidence.

The food does have an authentic Italian taste, or at least the attention to quality that you would expect from authentic Italian restaurateurs, and there were at least two tables of authentic Italian diners at Il Grano during my visit.

As for atmosphere, well, you can't have everything. Plano ain't Florence, and you won't forget that painful fact here. However, the Italian tiles, stucco walls, open kitchen, track lighting, and fairly large tree stuck in the center of the restaurant (the only tree left standing in Plano, or so I thought, until the manager informed me it's a fake) combine to create a functionally pleasant dining environment.

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