Good clean feed

Spotless Rigatoni offers ample helpings of fresh Italian food

Rigatoni is one of those diamonds in the strip-mall rough--or at least a three-quarter carat zircon in a sea of mood rings. It's clean, crisp, and a little staged in the way restaurants get when things start to resemble a sub sandwich emporium or a Motel 6 lobby. This immaculate whitewashed narrow dining room has red trim, a Romanesque statue or two, and paintings and sketches of Roman architecture and artifacts. Tables are covered with burgundy cloths topped with a layer of thick, clear plastic sheeting. White plastic chairs of the kind you might find around a motel swimming pool surround them. Flatware is wrapped in white paper napkins and tied off with red, curling ribbons.

It's all cozy without being fussy. At lunch, piped-in music was filled with American pop and rock tunes reconstituted in Italian--a process that generates terror when, for example, the piece being transformed is Laura Branigan's "Gloria." Far better sonic wallpaper was offered during dinner, when a little opera and some Vivaldi filled the room.

Meals start with garlic bread served in a basket. On a lunch visit, it was warm and bitter from an aggressive singeing. During dinner it was cold, pasty, and limp. Mediocre garlic bread in an Italian restaurant often augurs a meal of painfully dissonant flavors and textures, lower abdominal seismic activity, or a cataclysmic combination of the two.

Fortunately, what followed were plates of mostly decent food with just a few blips. Calamari fritti had tender strips of meat (no tentacle fringe) that were sweet, succulent, and coated golden in a light breading that wasn't bland or chalky. Two accompanying sauces were tomato (tangy and refreshing) and aioli (light and creamy with a subtle garlic surge instead of a pummeling).

Spinach chicken salad was splashed with dull, comatose tomato vinaigrette. Generous chicken chunks had a good grill flavor, slightly dry though they were. Bits of onion and sun-dried tomato added some vibrancy, but spinach-leaf grit turned this salad into the culinary version of nails on a blackboard.

Rigatoni alla gamberoni, pasta tubes in an olive oil and wine sauce, was gummy with flavors reminiscent of mild bar soap, and it came with shrimp impersonators; that is, they looked like shrimp, had a firmness and succulence like shrimp, but they tasted like...nothing. Maybe this is where all our recycled newsprint is going.

Tortellini alla panna, pasta rings stuffed with meat and tossed with mushrooms and ham in an Alfredo sauce, was well constructed with a light, elegant cream sauce; fresh, chewy mushrooms; and an offsetting heartiness from the ham and tortellini.

Flaky and rich, the grilled salmon leaned perhaps a bit too much to the dry side. But a generous sprinkling of potent capers and chopped sun-dried tomato gave it a good, tangy surge, while a lively spearmint vinaigrette deftly compensated for any dryness as it added a lively herbal dimension.

Swamped in a thick blanket of mozzarella, veal Parmesan was a mystery-meat puzzle. When the small, thin piece of veal was finally discovered, it proved moist and not overly breaded (it's sauteed rather than fried). Still, it seemed overwhelmed by melted dairy product that made it hard to determine where the cheese ended and meat began. The sauce was good and rich, though.

Rigatoni's tiramisou is moist and creamy, rich yet light. The cake is firm and without a hint of sogginess.

While lunch orders are placed at the front counter and delivered to your table, Rigatoni offers full table service during dinner, and that service is thoughtfully attentive and efficient. Plates were unobtrusively removed just after they were cleaned or utensils were placed across the surface, and water- and wineglasses were filled immediately.

Rigatoni is owned and operated by Carlos Trejo, a former chef and restaurant manager who once headed such Dallas venues as Caffe Paparazzi, Addison Cafe, and Bolero Mediterranean Grill (now Okeanos). While this modest venue featuring Northern Italian fare has a few bumps, the comfortably crisp atmosphere coupled with generous, tasty portions at fairly reasonable prices more than salves any minor wounds inflicted by its rough spots.

The first Flying Saucer Draught Emporium landed in Fort Worth in 1995. That same year, Scripps Howard News Service released a poll showing that 50 percent of Americans believed that flying saucers are real and that the federal government is covering up what it knows about extraterrestrials. There was also a poll taken over the last few years showing that more young adults believe in the existence of UFOs than have faith in the future viability of the Social Security system.

What I want to know is, what's wrong with these people? I mean the ones who think Social Security is a fiscally sound program.

They need a beer. Probably two. And that's about all they'll find at Flying Saucer, a venue boasting the largest beer selection in the Southwest--99 on tap, more than 130 in the bottle from more than 15 countries including India and Vietnam. The newest leg in this suds-sloshing metroplex tripod is on Greenville Avenue in the space that once was Flip's Trattoria. (The Greenville Flying Saucer joins the original Fort Worth and the Addison versions.) A couple of that deceased venue's ghosts are still evident. An original Flip's sculpture--kind of a giant ping-pong ball shish kabob--still stands out front. In the men's room, 8-by-10 color glossies of nude female Flip's patrons are plastered on the ceiling.

But the rest of the place has virtually no trace of its former funky self. In fact, it's rather amazing how thoroughly this eclectic, avant-garde venue was transformed into a cozy club-like rec room. The floor is coated in black and green linoleum tile, and dark wood paneling covers the walls. Instead of extraterrestrial vehicles, the flying saucer theme is captured by hundreds of plates that cover the walls as well as a black mesh stretched over the ceiling, although there are a few 1950s B-movie spaceship icons here and there. Dark cherry tables with chess boards painted on the surface (they serve chess and checker pieces) fill the dining room, and a chandelier with brown and green beer bottles emerges from a post in the center of the room. In a finger flip at current PC hysteria, a retro cigarette machine with styling resembling a 1950s Corvette sits near the rest rooms. There's even a raised seating area with overstuffed couches and elegant tables. And of course, the place sells stogies, which the Saucer refers to as turds (there's even a Society of B.A.T. or "burn a turd").

The back bar in which those 99 beer taps are impregnated is a mosaic of shiny and tarnished pennies. It's a fitting design, because that's about all the food in this place is worth. So make sure you lube the menu with a heady pint of brew.

Sausage and cheese plates with your choice of each proved a good beer partner, with fresh sausage (peppered salami is delicious) and cheese (potently rich white Vermont cheddar is stellar). But the Carr crackers were stale and might best be used as a miniature flying-saucer squadron.

Nasa salad illustrates just how little focus the Saucer places on its food. The menu describes it as leaf lettuce delicately tossed with wild field greens, crispy cucumbers, Roma tomatoes, and kalamata olives. In reality it was a plodding mix of iceberg lettuce, waxy tomatoes, mushy cucumber slices, and no olives. When we pointed the missing kalamatas, our server delivered a cup of virtually flavorless black olives.

The beef meltdown was a thin, dry sandwich with nondescript beef topped with melted cheddar. The bread was slathered with virtually tasteless horseradish mayo. The smoked bratwurst sandwich packed sausage with potent spice heat and smoke flavor. The sauerkraut was juicy, tangy and crisp. A side of warm German potato salad had a good, smoky bacon flavor, but had an unpleasantly mushy texture.

The hot pastrami sandwich on lightly toasted, dry pinwheel rye bread had hot pastrami, tomato, and lettuce held together with golf tees. A side of Sierra Nevada hot mustard barely elevated this to a level of adequacy.

The meat-free hippie hollow was stuffed with avocado, alfalfa sprouts, leaf lettuce, wild field greens, roma tomato, red bell peppers, and homemade hummus served inside a tomato-basil tortilla wrap. Served cold, the thick wrap made for clumsy, chewy sandwich girding that could have been tender and moist while it pulled out the flavors with a little steam. Dull hummus didn't help matters.

Sprouted from the fertile mind of Shannon Wynne, the brain behind 8.0 Restaurant & Bar, Nostromo (in what is now Sipango), and Tango, The Flying Saucer has spread to Little Rock, Arkansas, and Memphis, Tennessee, and a new edition is set to open this summer in Nashville. Wynne, who goes into other markets with partnerships comprising Dallas and local investors, says he's looking to expand into Kansas City, Atlanta, or the Carolinas in the near future.

And it's a great place to sip beers. Folks who join the UFO Club and slurp 200 different brews are honored with a brass saucer in the "Ring of Honor" on the wall. The menu, heavy on beer-friendly grub (bratwurst, liverwurst, big pretzels) should make for some good pairings. But the food can't hold its own against a decently firm, healthy head, which is why the Saucer recently closed for lunch. It's hard to capture midday crowds when your only worthy hunger-pang reliever comes from a tap.

Rigatoni.
9090 Skillman St., Suite 174A, (214) 553-1543.Open for lunch Monday-Friday 11 a.m.- 2:30 p.m.;Saturday 11 a.m.- 2 p.m;Open for dinner Monday-Thursday 4:30-9 p.m.;Friday & Saturday 4:30-10 p.m.Closed Sunday. $$

The Flying Saucer.
1520 Greenville Ave., (214) 887-1995. Open daily 4 p.m.-2 a.m. $

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