Big glossies and big platters

I have a theory. The necessary evidence has not yet been assembled to prove it, but the more I dine out, the more the world seems to conform to its basic premise.

The theory is this: The quality of a restaurant's food and service is inversely proportional to the number of autographed celebrity photos clogging its vestibule, bar, and dining-room walls.

Maggiano's Little Italy in NorthPark Center has lots of glossy publicity shots of famous people. Everywhere you turn, you're staring at some legitimate American legend or a hotshot meatball who's managed to use his or her 15 minutes of fame to secure a spot on a restaurant wall. Frank Sinatra. Movie critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel. Former Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach. Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk. Comedian Calvert DeForest (Larry Bud Melman).

From the Chicago Cubs, arguably the greatest baseball team ever to take to the field (as Prozac-popping Cub fans say, "Hey, any team can have a bad century"), there's the late play-by-play broadcaster Jack Brickhouse and second baseman Ryne Sandburg (a tribute, perhaps, to the original Maggiano's, which opened in Chicago in 1991). Signatures--mostly done in colored ink to disabuse you of the notion the autograph is mass-produced--are scrawled over each shot.

It's fitting that Maggiano's should have a few meatballs hanging from the walls. After all, this place serves platters of traditional Southern Italian fare (lots of spaghetti and ravioli) in quantities that guarantee every kennel inmate in Dallas will sample the menu at least once.

A platter of roasted chicken cammarrari with mushrooms, onions, peas, and roasted peppers was burgeoning with so much bird, most of it ended up in a foil take-home pan. Unfortunately, it was hard to tell if this was due to the behemoth portions or the critical lack of flavor and moisture in the meat. Maybe cammarrari means "ulcer-friendly cuisine" in Latin.

For those who don't mind eating off each other's plates, Maggiano's has "family-style dining," where parties of four or more can choose two appetizers, salads, pastas, main courses, and desserts for $19.95 per person. The restaurant augments this cozy family feel with a collage of family photos with images of nameless folks from the early 20th century.

And lots of them look like...well, like they haven't missed a Maggiano's-style platter meal in quite some time. In one particularly large shot, women in circa 1940s swimsuits stand together laughing. These are very shapely women, only it isn't a shape that looks good in a swimsuit.

The photo of these women generated lots of commentary among diners. That it could be overheard in the bustling, noisy dining room is an indication of the passion carrying these pithy statements. "That is the most disgusting picture I've ever seen," said one young lady stricken with advanced puberty at the next table. "If I ever wore something like that, if I was that fat, I would just, just...kill myself."

Somehow, that shot, blown-up to Maggiano's platter proportions, was struggling to be a metaphor for this dining-house experience, for this is a restaurant that tries to cover its clumsy flabbiness with the veneer of classic bathing-beauty attire from the World War II era.

I don't know what kind of nip-and-tuck program this operation needs. After all, the food isn't uniformly subpar. Some of it, in fact, is quite good. Cluttered with white cannellino beans, Tuscan mussels bathed in a tasty broth were sweet and tender. Mostaccioli with chicken and mushrooms in cream sauce was silky and flush with rich, earthy flavors. And the sauce was clean and agile, never muffling those flavors with a ploddingly heavy pastiness.

Linguini pesto with chicken and pine nuts had a thread of sweet, pungent freshness, and the sauce was actually a soothing, savory broth that never gummed it up with stickiness or sogginess. Though the chicken was slightly dry, the textural contrast and hearty flavor of the roasted pine nuts amply compensated.

Plush mushroom ravioli, dusted with a delicate crust of browned, grated Parmesan, were stuffed with a robust mushroom filling. There was just a touch of the creamy rich sauce, so it never smothered the texture of the pasta or the flavor of the filling.

The service, however, was pure cellulite. On one visit, we were seated 20 minutes after our designated reservation time, an annoying, but not unforgivable breach for a packed restaurant with a clamor for tables. What is unforgivable is what can happen after you get that table. It was 40 minutes, or a full hour after our reservation time, before anything--including water, bread, or appetizers--was delivered, leaving us to ponder the empty wineglasses we had acquired at the bar.

After the tardy breadbasket arrived, just a tiny blot of olive oil dribbled in a saucer was enlisted to keep it company. The stuff was sopped up in seconds. There are no self-service olive-oil bottles on the table, setting us up for a lengthy, time-consuming quest to track down a server, negotiate a quick splash of oil, and then hope it arrived before the bread turned into Roman building material. By the time our saucer was finally anointed, our interest in the bread sunk to the level of our server's interest in us.

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.

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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