Note the retro-Italian sense of style; it infects the menu, too.
Note the retro-Italian sense of style; it infects the menu, too.
Stephen P. Karlisch

Middle-Class Italian

It isn't hard to see why Tom Ruggeri sought to move his 15-year-old restaurant from the nook on Routh Street and Cedar Springs to across the street in the Quadrangle. After all, now he has a circular drive for Mercedes Benzes, BMWs and Cadillacs to be parked in perpetuity. Under the awning that says "Veal, Beef and Seafood" is a row of fountains that create a musical din to the sound of cars being parked. Peer through the roiling fountain waters and you'll see the glimmer of coins tossed in by wish makers, coins that will no doubt be donated to a foundation dedicated to finding a cure for Quadrangle restaurant mortality. But these aren't the only amusements at Ruggeri's new digs.

Ruggeri located his restaurant in the space that was once home to Mediterraneo at the Quadrangle before it was PoPoLos and after it was J. Pepe's. It's a plush yet crisp space with lots of curves and an attractive wine cellar in the vestibule. Pictures of game birds line the walls, which makes you think it was supposed to be a hunting lodge at some point.

But the food is the same, a kind of clumsy genetic engineering of haute cuisine with retro Italian. Or something. There are a few customizations tossed in, too--with dubious success. One is the fried zucchini, a side dish that seems to spontaneously sprout with every entrée delivered to the table. A small oval plate holds a cluster of battered and fried squash that look like fly legs under a microscope or maybe badly corroded railroad spikes. The zucchini sits in a puddle of a brown viscous substance allegedly composed of brown sugar and butter. The flavor profile was odd, a little like putting Cracker Jack popcorn on pan-seared foie gras. The flavors didn't seem compatible with anything on the menu except maybe coffee. In the mouth, this dish resembled aged french fries in pre-sweetened dishwater. It was not excessively sweet; it just lacked anything else to offset its sweet tepidity.

It didn't merge well at all with the saltimbocca alla Romano, a dish slathered in a sauce that was suspiciously similar in appearance to the stuff soaking the zucchini. But it wasn't. Instead of the white wine and butter sauce that traditionally laces this combo of veal scaloppini, sheets of prosciutto and sage, this one was coated in a blend spiked with tomato sauce. The veal was tender and juicy, neatly balancing the smooth tang in the sauce with the briny bite of the prosciutto. There were some arousing visuals on the plate as well. A rose nestled near the rim of the plate was composed of sage leaves and a coiled tomato skin fashioned to mimic rose petals--a clever twist on the ingredients. But why oh why did this plate also include half a cling peach? This touch made the dish seem like a creation from the Luby's school of plate garnishment.

Other things rose above the mundane more cleanly. Ruggeri's carpaccio is wafer thin: tender slices of tenderloin moistened with a little olive oil (instead of the traditional sauce composed of mayo, Worcestershire sauce, lemon and milk) and graced with shaved Romano cheese and capers. The meat was silky and fresh, without any stringy or tough striations to gnaw through.

Mozzarella caprese aromatica was frightfully good. Here, robust slices of fresh buffalo mozzarella are interlaced with tomato slices and seasoned with a mild vinaigrette dressing. The whole thing is then kicked up a few notches with imposing little tangles of pickled onion, creating pockets of searing intensity to offset any possible bland spots in the dish.

But good gawd, what's with the minestrone soup? For an Italian restaurant, this was a form of international terrorism. I've had versions from a can (which this may have been) that had more verve and flavor than this soup. The vegetables were mushy, and the broth was flat. In fact, the ingredients were so overcooked they flirted with disintegration, nearly transforming this soup into slurry.

Ruggeri's service is fine and friendly but a little uneven. The waiter delivered a wine list, but he didn't deliver menus until after we had been seated for several minutes. Plus, his menu knowledge was a little sketchy. The wine list was a bit heavy on the California side and a little light on the Italian side. Although, the Marchesi di Barolo dolcetto was a nice bargain and a versatile wine for this menu.

It might even go well with the shrimp and scallops primavera, although you may want to skip the latter and just stick to the wine. This was terror on a plate. The scallops were soapy, and the shrimp were overcooked into a tough banality. A side of carrot, zucchini and bell pepper shreds was soggy and limp. Too bad, because the linguini was cooked to near perfection, and the lemon butter white wine sauce with garlic was balanced and tasty.

Insalata di spinaci fantasia was refreshingly delicious. Although skimpy on some ingredients (only three kalamatas, two slices of hearts of palm and a single section of artichoke heart), the core ingredients of curly spinach, tomato and aged Gorgonzola cheese washed in a creamy Italian dressing nearly made this a hearty meal instead of an excuse for extra roughage.

We were steered toward the grilled lamb chops by our server when choosing an entrée. These marinated chops were astoundingly good: juicy, chewy and well-seasoned with a clean gamy edge to keep it interesting.

Antipasto misto was a mixed bag though, both literally and in levels of execution. The plate consisted of slices of salami coiled into funnels and capocollo rolled into tubes of dubious flavor interest--a taste that was little different than packaged grocery store meat. These meats were interlaced with triangles of provolone, a few kalamata olives, segments of hearts of palm, tomato and fiery pepperoncini. At the center was a cool tasty shrimp, its neck reddened with a cool, sprightly cocktail sauce, making it appear as if the crustacean had a nasty run-in with a guillotine. Surrounding that shrimp was an eggplant salad with pieces of mushy celery and a sweetness not unlike the brown gravy on the fried zucchini.

Grilled salmon, a special, allegedly came slathered in dill sauce. But in reality there were no dill hairs or flavors to be found in the sauce, though it exuded a wonderfully rich lobster essence. The fish itself was flaky but a little mushy. Flanking the fish was a hard, tough carrot wedge that seemed aged and a single boiled potato. A side of asparagus was crisp and tasty. There was also a wedge of grilled zucchini.

Tira misu was superb. A square of cake dusted with chocolate and mascarpone was drizzled with a light caramel sauce. It literally floated on the way down. It was light and full of flavor, although the sponge cake itself was a little soggy.

Of course there was the glossy black piano, kind of a Ruggeri's signature, with the gentleman fashioning standard tunes and such, although he seemed to take more breaks than anything on our visits. He has a jar on the piano so that you can stuff paper money into it, in case you don't have any coins for the fountain.

The pianist was solid and true, without any superfluous glamour or artistic interpretations. Exactly the way Ruggeri's is. It's sophisticated in a pedestrian way, if those two terms can be merged. Ruggeri's leaves the gloss and artistry to splashing fountains outside. So make a wish.


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