By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
Spaghetti and meatballs. It's the stereotypical Italian dish, and it's ubiquitous. You can find it frozen, in cans made by chefs with names that sound like bathtub toys, or freeze-dried for hikers so that people who commune with horseflies, skip bathing for days on end, and dine in the dirt, can eat ethnic.
You also can find it at Raneri's, at least on the children's menu. Not only that, but it's good, with a hefty, sticky sauce floating a meatball the size of a sparrow. The service is good too. When a bowl of Raneri's spaghetti arrived for the child at our table, our waitress offered to cut the pasta and the meatball so that it would fit in the tiny tyke's mouth. We took her up on it.
What's this? One of the most prevalent strands of conventional wisdom in Dallas is that the Big D cannot do the Big I. No matter how hard the city tries (with a couple of notable exceptions), the food just struggles in scalded noodle limpidity. That is pretty much what I expected from Raneri's in Irving, an Italian enclave with a menu more extensive than a Fiat repair log. Just look at all of the choices: appetizers, salads, pasta, veal, beef, chops, chicken, seafood, and a little thing called trippa tripe, which roughly translated is "cow stomach, cow stomach," since trippa is Italian for tripe. It was almost endearing that Raneri's didn't list wood-fired pizzas on the menu, although a trippa tripe pizza would have been a welcome addition.
8604 N. MacArthur
Irving, TX 75063
Region: Irving & Las Colinas
Saturday 4 p.m.-midnight.
So this was what I was wondering while wandering into Raneri's: Will this reasonably new restaurant be another in a string of underachieving metroplex stabs at Italian? My hopes for something better were dashed after the dinner salads arrived. These mundane vegetables-in-the-raw collages were far too unimaginative to suggest provocative entrees. Limp scraps of head lettuce, rings of red onion, wedges of tasteless tomato, slices of cucumber, and slivers of bell pepper all settled on the plate in a flat, listless heap. These salads looked like something that would fit in nicely on a Luby's tray. The dressings had the same pizzazz paucity. Blue cheese, Italian, balsamic vinaigrette, French--all had either the bland or oily watery flavor of something formulated not to offend a digestive affliction.
The cold antipasto plate was also a bit on the dreary side. Those same scraps of faded head lettuce carpeted the platter upon which was spread salami strips, green and black olives, anchovies, a pair of provolone triangles, a segmented artichoke heart, and roasted peppers. Around the edge was a klatch of brine-cured carrots and mushy celery with a flavor afflicted by anemia.
But this was largely the extent of Raneri's blemishes. Virtually everything else hovered well above mediocrity. Hot antipasto was much better than the chilled; everything on this platter sang like a sauced crooner. Stuffed mushroom caps were packed with garlic, parsley, breadcrumbs, and flavor. The shrimp that swam in a brisk garlic sauce were plump and filled with lustiness. Clams were a bit fishy and mushy on account of the bread crumbs, but the stuffed green peppers, little bell pepper carpets scattered with ground meat, cheese, tomato sauce, rice, and onion were simple, yet profoundly robust.
The hot antipasto platter served as a sort of overture to the rest of the menu, predicting some thrilling high notes with maybe one sounding like a beached whale and another a drunk rottweiler. Yet however the notes are hit, the one thing that remains consistent at Raneri's is that the sauces never overwhelm the centerpieces. Sauces burst with flavor, and they know their role, never overwhelming the food they are assigned to soak.
Sea bass libanese is a vivid example. The wine sauce is littered with tomatoes, capers, onions, and black and green olives. This chunky slurry is brisk with subtle little flourishes of richness that prance as foils to the tender sweetness of the fish.
But this is not the only thing that Raneri's has in its arsenal. It also has great service. Almost across the board, the service is efficient, gracious, and knowledgeable. Before the antipasto platters are delivered to the table, plates are set in front of each diner and separate forks are placed across the surface. Wine and water glasses are unobtrusively filled.
Not only are the servers accommodating, the kitchen is too. The menu lists the linguini con vongole salsa in two variations: with red sauce, or white sauce. But neither of these appealed to us. So we requested a customization with a garlic butter sauce. Not only that, we pushed our luck still further and requested that calamari be tossed atop the linguini tangle too. The result was astounding. The linguini was tender, surrendering under just the right amount of dental pressure, the sauce was smooth and brisk, and the clams were fresh and briny. But the real surprise was the calamari. Every scrap was tender, firm, and buttery, almost sweet. It was like these things spent their life swimming in extra virgin olive oil instead of salt water.
But then there was a little slippage. Cannelloni, large noodles stuffed with chopped meat, spinach, and cream sauce, was soggy and bland with a little must flavor. When delivered, it resembled a fish corpse with a red racing stripe painted in sauce across its back. Specks of chopped meat within the folds tasted like ripe, damp cardboard when worked in the mouth.