Big glossies and big platters

Maggiano's is more photo finish than finished food

Just about every service request unfolded like this. Wine ordered shortly after we were seated didn't materialize until halfway through the meal. One appetizer never arrived. Pacing was frantic and clumsy, with an inordinate amount of time between courses.

And much of the food was too bland and uninteresting to justify the prices paid in long waits and inattentiveness. It's almost as if Maggiano's is trying to compensate for these shortcomings with huge quantities, which you see transmogrified into a procession of little Maggiano's shopping bags as patrons shuffle out.

Caesar salad tasted like little more than a bunch of leaves lubricated in the olive oil that should have been available for our bread. There was no discernible flavor in the dressing that scantily clad the lettuce save for a hint of lemon.

Location Info

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Maggiano's Little Italy

205 NorthPark Center
Dallas, TX 75225

Category: Restaurant > Italian

Region: Park Cities

Italian salad was better, with crisp lettuce leaves, carrot, celery, garbanzo beans, olives, and roasted bell peppers. But a cluttering of wimpy, mushy capers and mealy tomatoes knocked it down a few notches.

Other dishes that should have been easy in this pasta trough were void of any provocative lustiness. Fettuccini Alfredo with broccoli was pasty-dry and bland. Linguini with calamari in diabolo sauce had plenty of resilient squid meat. But the sauce showed zero zesty richness and was only kept from slipping into a flavor coma by a brisk tang and a hint of smokiness.

Tender, resilient meat didn't save the calamari fritte either. It was sheathed in chalky, greasy batter armor that lumbered in blandness. Tiramisu was a soggy sponge.

The wine list is fairly decent, with a good sprinkling of Italian selections--a refreshing detail, as far too many ethnic menus lazily default to California. Not as interesting is the Captain's List of higher-priced selections, which seems too heavily loaded with pricey California Chardonnays and reds.

The more pedestrian wine list is actually an effective dining tool because it arranges wines by body style--light, medium, and full--along with short flavor descriptions and menu-pairing suggestions. This makes for an easy introduction to Italian bottlings because it categorizes wines such as Montepulciano de Abruzzo, Barbera, and the pricey Brunello di Montalcino in sections for comparisons with familiar varietals such as Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Cabernet. In a very general sense, this is a good basis for character assessment.

With locations in Chicago, Washington, Atlanta, and Costa Mesa, California, Maggiano's Little Italy was created by restaurant developer Richard Melman of Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You and is owned by Brinker International. Brinker snagged the restaurant, along with Corner Bakery, in 1995 from Melman for some $73 million in Brinker stock.

And to enter the place from NorthPark mall, you have to slip through the Corner Bakery, a Melman ploy to get Maggiano diners to whiff baking bread.

The dining room was designed to look like a pre-World War II Italian-American dining house in New York's Little Italy, hence the clusters of old family photos. And it is fairly handsome, in a nouveau riche mall-rat sort of way. The 24,000-square-foot, two-level restaurant (the second level is for private parties) is crusted with red leather booths, rich red draperies pulled back with gold ties framing entryways, dark wood paneling, patterned carpets, and tables draped with red-and-white checked table cloths. A wall opening between the dining room and the bar is congregated with magnums and Jeroboams of wine crowded around a large black vase exploding with bright red gladioli.

Which brings me back to all of those celebrity photos and my theory. Maybe they should consider taking some of them down--except for the shot of Jerry Springer, after whom they should consider honorarily naming something. My vote would be the family-style dining menu in recognition of all of the family interaction he facilitates.

As for the rest of the celebrity photos, I'm sure those ladies in the swimsuit shot would be tickled to get them.

Maggiano's Little Italy, 205 NorthPark Center,(214) 360-0707. Open Monday-Thursday11 a.m.-10 p.m.;Friday & Saturday11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday 12-9 p.m.$$$

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