Maserati of manicotti

We started the evening at a pitch-black bar in Deep Ellum--where we parked down an alley, where the bartender sighed "red or white" when we asked about wine, where the waitress answered our queries over her shoulder as she walked away from the table, where the chef shouted from the kitchen door the answer to the question about the special pasta.

We decided to eat elsewhere.
I'm too old to think this is cool. It was time to go uptown.
Not too far, just the other side of the highway to Ruggeri's. We pulled up to the restaurant on Routh Street; a smiling valet opened our door. Before we had time to tell the maitre d' (also smiling and dressed in festive red velvet under his jacket) we had no reservations, he had greeted us warmly and taken our coats. "No problem," he exclaimed, as he led us to a table and pulled out my chair with a flourish.

This is what you go out to dinner for.
Ruggeri's is known for the same kind of effusive Italian welcome that Alberto Lombardi and his gang used to give us in their original restaurant (remember the old house?), that Franco offers at Riviera. Our waiter presented us with a wine list, told us what the specials were, told us we could have the fish as he described, but if we wanted it another way, the chef would be happy to oblige. Was there anything else we wanted? No? He'd return in a moment to take our order.

The grand piano playing softly in the background, the warm brick walls and greenery, and the multilevel space expanded with mirrors provided a civilized and comfortable backdrop for conversation. We took our time, ordering appetizers to eat with wine while we decided on main courses. A fillet of delicately smoked trout was dressed with a dollop of pesto; sizzling soft-shell crab with a gremolata-like topping of minced garlic, parsley, and a squeeze of lemon. Carpaccio was cut nearly too thin, losing some of its sexy chew, but the beefy flavor came through and the garnish of capers and mustard helped.

In my experience and to my taste, Ruggeri's has always served the best manicotti in the city. I give in and order it every time I eat there, with the excuse that I'm "just checking up on it." The crepes are tender but not mushy, with a buttery flavor all their own; the gentle cheese and cream filling is cloud-like, melting, like a dessert without sugar, yet the whole thing holds its shape when you cut it, and the tartness of the light tomato sauce saves the dish from terminal tameness. A special of the night, sauteed snapper, was so fresh and clean-tasting that the simple dish became stellar. The big deal meal of the menu is Ruggeri's veal chop, a hefty pound of pink meat on the bone, drenched in a deep wine sauce with plenty of mushrooms.

Too full for dessert, we ordered coffee and relaxed back into our comfortable chairs, feeling right at home with the other blue-hairs. The crowd that evening was older than my group by about a quarter-century, but you don't have to be a senior to appreciate good service and a degree of the ritual that should surround dining.

--Mary Brown Malouf

Ruggeri's Ristorante, 2911 Routh, 871-7377. Open for lunch Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.. For dinner, nightly 5 p.m.-11 p.m.

Granchio alla Ruggeri (Soft Shell Crab) $7.95
Filetta di Trota Affumicata $6.95
Carpaccio $7.75
Manicotti e Pomodori $10.75
Ruggeri's Special Veal Chop $26


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