There's a lot of indignant rant in the culture these days over the knee-jerk, Glock-click tendency of many of us to associate anything Italian with mobster chic--and maybe baked ziti. In April 2001, the American Italian Defense Association filed a lawsuit against the producers of the popular HBO series The Sopranos in Cook County, Illinois, alleging the cable show violates a little-known "individual dignity" clause in the Illinois Constitution. (The suit was tossed out by a judge the following September, a ruling that was upheld this past summer on appeal.)
So with this specific "sensitivity" tickling the culture's antennae as of late, it was a little jarring to see a framed color glossy of Tony Soprano himself on the wall of Café Nostra on Lower Greenville Avenue, along with a few shots of The Godfather cast. But not just any shots. Over there is a shot of Michael Corleone squeezing off a trio of rounds to snuff mobster Virgil Sollozzo and corrupt New York Police Captain McCluskey at Louie's restaurant in Brooklyn. To the right is an Al Pacino with a little more age and seasoning in the baroque massacre finale from Scarface, "a Verdi opera performed with assault weapons," as Vanity Fair critic James Wolcott pronounced it. Sketches of Al Capone and John Gotti add a little earthiness to these Kodak moments.
Just as our pepperoni rolls are served, the college basketball game on ESPN slips from the TV screens and The Godfather II arises from the flicker: Vito as a little boy in Italy; Vito watching his mother take a shotgun blast; Vito on Ellis Island, etc.
2023 Greenville Ave.
214-821-2100. Open 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; open 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Friday s pizza: $18.50
These pictures, these TV screens, are not only the most entertaining distractions at Café Nostra, they are its subversive saboteurs. Not because of any PC insensitivities they might inflame, but because they suck all of the drama out of the menu until all that's left is a Fredo slouch. Those pepperoni rolls are little doughboy biscuits constructed from pizza dough cored with skimpy folds of pepperoni. Garlic knots are pizza dough speckled with Parmesan cheese, but not much garlic, or at least not any that can be detected on the tongue.
Most of the problem emanates from indolent marinara. Spaghetti and meatballs featured well-prepared pasta, but a sauce that could double as a Quaalude and spiceless meatballs. Eggplant Parmesan was a little better, but only on account of the eggplant flavor and firm texture. Baked ziti suffered from overcooked pasta, transforming a Sopranos standard into a dry, hard pasta-scape with a weak application of feeble sauce that gave the dish an unsavory pinkish tinge.
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Meat calzone had a crisp exterior that huddled an inner realm packed with ricotta cheese and tasteless gray hamburger. And though the taste was tepid, we found it a good idea to eat it rapidly as it tended to become a soggy sponge pocket if allowed to roost.
But this could all be dismissed easily enough. Maybe Café Nostra is one of those places where they have fringe Italian dishes that exist simply for faux diversity, the kind where after you taste them you wonder why they don't stick with what they know best: pizza.
Then we ordered a meat-lover's pizza packed with pepperoni, ham, ground beef and meatball remnants. The pizza dough was so soggy the apex of the pie piece fell off as soon as it was lifted from the round; it was a slushy mess.
On the other hand, I suppose the food could be some sort of literary device, fitting in nicely with the gallery as a metaphor for gore.