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.
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.
Gnocchi di patate stumbled too. The red meat sauce was rich, tangy, and well herbed, but the gnocchi, especially the plumper pieces, was gummy and chewy.
Unlike many conventional Italian restaurants, Raneri's has lobster. Lots of it. There's broiled lobster tail, baked lobster tail, lobster tail in hot sauce with clams and mussels, whole lobsters stuffed, broiled, or bathed in hot sauce, even surf and turf and a fisherman's platter. We locked our tongues on the aragosta cude scampi, a pair of baked tails with a ramekin of garlic-lemon-wine sauce for dipping the meat into. The tail meat, speckled with garlic particles, was extracted from the cylindrical shells and draped perpendicularly over the husks. The meat was firm and tender, but it was a little shy on sweetness.
Raneri's was opened roughly six months ago by chef/restaurateur Peter Raneri, a transplant from New York. The décor of his restaurant, like so many Italian haunts in Dallas, is perhaps an unintentional lunge at camp. Suits of armor, diminutive ones, as if custom tailored for Robert Reich, are positioned on each side of the entrance. The ceiling billows with sheer canopies that surround, swathe, muffle, and otherwise wrap every utilitarian fixture. Folds flutter like flaccid jowl flesh absorbing laughter every time the air conditioning system kicks in. The tuck and billow of the ceiling resembles the interior upholstery of a casket.
Unfortunately, all of those billows have little effect on the sound absorption of the place; when a crowd is present in the dining room, Raneri's is loud. But it also has a few amusing touches. Whitewashed latticework, snarled with plastic grapevines and Italian lights, separates the dining room from the bar and the foyer. Roman columns topped with an arch and wrapped with light strings in barber-pole style form a threshold to spill guests from the foyer into the dining room. It all comes off like a quickie wedding chapel in Reno.
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However, the food is far better than the feeding trough buffets you'd most likely exploit after tying the knot in Reno.
There's a modest wine list with several California selections and a modest number of Italian selections, though not enough for my taste. One good entry is the Eco Domani Barbera D'alba (actually an E&J Gallo wine), a deliciously inexpensive drink ($22), smooth, tight, and luscious. It paired well with the braciola di manzo, rolled pounded beef stuffed with eggs, cheese, parsley in tomato sauce, and breadcrumbs. This homey dish was hearty and delicious.
Instead of cantaloupe, the prosciutto was draped in strips over a slice of sectioned honeydew, making for a stark contrast between pinch red and icy green. The melon was lushly fragrant and juicy, and the thick slices of prosciutto were tender, sweet, and briny.
Even the tiramisu, so often a Dallas dud, surpassed expectations. It was smooth, rich, and creamy with a firm cushion of sponge cake at the bottom, well sauced in marsala. Maybe it's possible to find tiramisu in a freeze-dried pouch too.