Ten-Gallon Lasagna

Spaghetti western: Italian Cowboy's fare ranges from good, to bad, to ugly.
Stephen P. Karlisch

Sunday is the big day at Italian Cowboy, a sort of steak and pasta dojo dressed in operatic cowboy gear. On the Sabbath, Italian Cowboy holds what it calls lasagna mania, an all-you-can-eat flat-noodle frenzy that is perhaps the Italian version of the stampede.

This mania kind of reminded me of Smorga Bob's, a semirural smorgasbord in the far reaches of Northern California. Bob had lasagna on his smorgasbord, squeezing it between the breaded chicken mounds and the bleached fish fillets floating in buttered water with parsley added for color.

The thing is, after a Smorga Bob lasagna square, there wasn't enough room left for the creamed carrot casserole topped with Durkee fried onion strings or the chipped beef tips on Wonder Bread. So maybe it's a scam, like those $50 rebates that require UPC codes, original receipts and toe jam samples to qualify for the check delivered well after inflation has eaten your rebate to shreds. So we didn't try the lasagna at Italian Cowboy.

But we did try the marinara sauce. Actually, it's impossible not to try the marinara sauce. It's applied to virtually everything, even the check. One thing it is not applied to is the dessert. Yet the Italian Cowboy chef may want to try putting it on some of these confections, at least the one we sampled. Any bit of experimentation would have done wonders for this dessert. Italian Cowboy cakes looked like they were baked by Hostess, only they weren't as pretty. Strawberry cake, a cylindrical bit of architecture with vertical strawberry stripes running through it, was topped with a waxy frosting the hue and texture of neutral shoe polish. This even spreading had a dollop of whipped cream in the center, which nearly made the cake semitolerable until you got to the strawberry filling in the center, which sort of coated the palate with a cold strawberry gel. You almost needed a spoonful of warm marinara to recover use of your tongue and resume normal conversation.

Oftentimes, a spoon was the only way you could apply the stuff. Though the focaccia bread, with a crisp top dusted with Parmesan and rosemary, was superb, the accompanying marinara sauce was texturally inconsistent. The bread is cut into pie triangles, presumably to aid sauce dipping. Warm, moist and soft with a crisp, singed crusty top, the bread had a hard time holding on to the watery pepper-flaked marinara on our first visit. It dribbled off the bread before it could be slipped between the lips. It gained some viscosity on the second visit, making this dish among the best offered here, and it's free to boot.

The sauce was even thicker on the buffalo balls, a dish that was perhaps created to generate sympathetic awareness of eunuch bison. Three huge meat globes wade in a puddle of chunky tomato sauce. The meat was moist, well-seasoned and delicious, and it was helped by a sauce that actually had some action and didn't just lie there looking ruddy. This dish was a superb rustic arrangement of very clean flavors.

Cowtown calamari was surprising as well. The menu states that this calamari is dipped in a spiced coating before it's fried. Yet there was none detectable; we couldn't taste anything that could kick up a cold sweat on an ulcer patient. Yet the calamari, all body rings and no tentacles, was crisp, greaseless and tender. These rings tasted even better when dipped into the ubiquitous marinara that was included.

Another menu item that perilously strayed from its menu description was the Roman sirloin steak. The menu states this steak comes with "Italian pizzaiola sauce," an enhancement composed of tomatoes, black olives, white wine, garlic, capers and oregano. But our steak came nude except for some well-placed grill marks. The steak was actually pretty good: juicy, solid and flavorful with a little medium-rare pink, though it was stringy and hard to chew at times. The meat cuddled with a spread of very well-executed sautéed vegetables (the participants were crisp and buttery instead of mushy and runny) consisting of carrot, onion and green beans, all edged with a few raw Roma tomato slices.

Italian Cowboy was created by Francesco and Jane Secchi, owners of Ferrari's and Il Grano. And the décor they chose to drape their new restaurant in is a frenetic mix of Italian paraphernalia and cowboy camp. Boots and hats in countless incarnations are everywhere. Longhorn skulls are mounted on the walls with Shiner Bock beer cans stuffed in the muzzles, and Clint Eastwood spaghetti western posters are hung here and there.

Another wall is a collage of pictures that look like they were clipped from A Day in the Life of Italy. The centerpiece of this mosaic is a trio of babies (diaperless) playing in a vat of spaghetti. An open kitchen featuring a rotisserie grill and a wood-burning oven gives way to kinetic splashes of red, yellow, blue and green that pop up everywhere: chairs, walls, napkins and so on.

Too bad the soups couldn't pick up on some of this dazzle. The broccoli soup, smooth and creamy with a clean broccoli flavor, was bland and virtually void of seasoning. The fava bean and pasta soup was riddled with mushy pasta and a dearth of beans (we counted three and a half) steeping in an insipid broth.

Farfalle Marco Polo was also a bit of an indulgence in the culinary malaise. A heap of bow-tie pasta was infiltrated with cream, Parmesan cheese, shrimp, Roma tomato and broccoli. There was nothing wrong with each ingredient on its own, but thrown together the dish just lay there, affording neither aid nor comfort to each ingredient: The sum of the parts added up to less than each part. It lacked culinary cohesiveness, a catalyst (a spice or herb or maybe a big splash of wine) to pull these ingredients together.

The yellow rose butterfly pork chop changed the tone from bland to rough. In this creation, an 8-ounce pork chop is cut in the center and opened, breaded and fried. The result is a dry, leathery black-brown patch that bears a close resemblance to emery paper, or maybe a map of Australia clipped out of a hair shirt.

The puffy calzone--stuffed with gooey cheese and moist bits of chicken with spicy marinara sauce--was almost great. It was zesty, fresh and hearty, but the pizza dough was not cooked all the way through, leaving a pasty glue--the kind you might seal windows and door frames with--in certain sectors.

Italian Cowboy's service is earnest and attentive, if choppy and ruffled. Though appetizers were ordered well before the entrées, the entrées were delivered just a couple of minutes after the appetizers arrived, creating a dinner course gridlock at the table that necessitated removing some elements before we were ready to surrender them.

Italian Cowboy is an energetic concept and a good atmosphere for eating calamari and sipping margaritas, but if it's to successfully straddle both cowboy camp and Italian cheek tonguing, it'll have to focus more on the belly and not so much on the bull.

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