Is Italian Café a contemporary hole-in-the-wall with red-and-white checked tablecloths serving superlative Italian grub, or is it a sports bar? It doesn't take many chews to score this one.
Once you're finished gnawing on the basket of fresh, moist knot bread, it's evident that the best thing this place serves is spread across a crisp picture tube flashing images of colored helmets scrambling down a football field. A muffed order of salami provolone ($4.50), described as salami topped with provolone cheese, came out as a large plate of alternating slices of baked ham, tired salami, and provolone. In the center of the arrangement was a column of lettuce and tomato draped with a pair of anchovy strips. This, we discovered, was the antipasto salad. So we reordered.
The result was a digest version of the dish we had just sent back, sans the lettuce, tomato, and salty fish strips. Slices of salami, baked ham, and provolone ringed a heap of canned black olives chopped and dusted with parsley -- a careless plate for careless tastes.
That's why this place should add another TV or two and stick with sports. Artichoke salad ($3.25) with black olives and bell pepper was little more than a clutter of sharply tangy artichokes -- sections of heart that tasted as if they were beginning to ferment in the can.
Against our better judgment, we sampled yet another item from the salad/appetizer genre and stabbed our forks into Caesar salad ($2.95), "traditional style," as the menu described. It proved to be little more than chopped lettuce leaves lacquered in a sticky white substance resembling Miracle Whip with a scattering of tiny croutons.
So we attacked the entrées with gusto, hoping for a change of pace, but this left us with more regret than cheer. Fettuccine a la vodka ($8.95), one of the more imaginative things on the menu, sported slimy strips of surimi, tough and soapy shrimp, and specks of sun-dried tomato in a weak vodka cream sauce. After sampling IC's white fish ($10.95), all I could think of was a verse from Frank Zappa's composition "Dangerous Kitchen."
"The sponge on the drainer
Is stinky and squirty
If you squeeze it when you wipe up
What you get on your hands then
Could unbalance your glands and
Make you blind or whatever."
It's hard for me to improve on Zappa's words, which perfectly described my experience with Italian Café whitefish. The thing should return to the freezer whence it came.
Chicken a la Romano carciofi ($9.95), a chicken breast in a lemon-wine sauce with artichoke hearts and capers, picked the tone up a bit. A moist, thin patty of bird breast swam in a "lemon wine sauce" that was hard to differentiate from an olive oil slick. But the capers were fat and juicy, even though the mushy artichokes bubbled with the same sharp flavor afflicting the hearts in the salad.
With checkered tablecloths, a wood-paneled divider choked with fake fauna, and a soiled floor that's stained green, Italian Café makes a less than half-hearted stab at Mediterranean ambience. In the corner of the dining room is a stack of beer cases topped with a bottle of Windex.
Yet the place does have a respectable (for a sports bar) wine list, with selections primarily from California and Italy spiced with an Australian Chardonnay -- a little rugby to punch the cantata.
And just as you'd expect with a place like this, the pizza is OK. The 12-inch works pizza ($12.95), with pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms, bell peppers, and black olives, was moist and chewy. It was so salty, it made you want to nurse a mug of beer. And hug a remote.
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