Restaurant Reviews

Zestless Italian

Good move. About a month ago, Alfredo Mirza, owner of a duo of clumsily monikered venues dubbed Alfredo's Italian Seafood Restaurant and Alfredo's II, closed the latter, merged it into the former, and renamed his restaurant Alfredo's. "We just centralized into one," says Mirza. The move was logical, he insists. One was too close to the other, turning the restaurants into cash-flow cannibals.

Pausing, Mirza then gets to the heart of the matter: "I was having to worry too much on both. I didn't want to have to divide the attention."

Which is good. Because if Alfredo's needs anything, it needs attention. Not that the food is dismal. But what drives me crazy is how any self-respecting Italian restaurant can be so lame and passionless. If Italian culture is anything, it's the antithesis of lame.

The Romans graced the past with the gladiators, the vomitorium, and a process of sweetening wine with lead that pocked history with such entertainingly brain-damaged deviants as Nero. Italy produces yodelers besieged with passion, exotic cars that turn men to boys, and governments that change more often than the rest of Europe showers. Italians perfunctorily scratch their seven-year itches without the slightest recrimination.

But there it sits, presented on my plate like Bob Dole without his Viagra. The "authentic Italian" trio parmigiana -- a splotch each of tortellini, meat lasagna, and manicotti slathered in a well-sparked housemade marinara -- was so un-Italian, so tepid, you might think you were in England. Tortellini pillows were tired and limp. Pasta sheathing on the manicotti was overcooked. And the lasagna was downright embarrassing: limp noodle sheets, floating chunks of gray, unseasoned meat.

I counted the members of my German family who could do this number far better: my mother, both my sisters, an aunt on my mother's side, my wife. The only family member I could think of who couldn't do lasagna as well as this one was an aunt on my father's side, and she still serves creamed Green Giant string beans topped with Durkee French-fried onions with every meal.

Yet not everything was this pallid. Green lip mussels, though a bit tough and short on briny sweetness, were tasty in their lemon-butter-garlic slather. And capellini Capri was astoundingly well balanced and savory. Perfectly cooked angel-hair pasta twisted and tangled with fresh mushrooms, artichoke hearts, spinach, and sun-dried tomatoes in a gently piquant wine-garlic sauce.

Veal piccata, a dish that's hard to find well prepared in Dallas, wasn't bad either, though the meat tasted a bit tired. Flecked with firm capers and taut mushrooms, the herbed lemon-butter sauce was blended with poise, and the flour coating kissed the meat with just the right touch.

But salads were pathetic, served warm with limp, weepy greens. The Caesar dressing reveled in the ho-hum with no lemon surge, no anchovy fervor. Baby clams in the linguine ala vongole tasted like musty basement cardboard. Snow crab claws, purported to be in lobster bisque sauce, were dry and fibrous. Plus the sauce, well littered with basil, was so salty that it could have been made with water from that lake in Utah.

It's hard to generate much passion for Alfredo's, though the opera music that sweetens the atmosphere tracks on the right arousal avenue. Mirza completely redid the interior after invading the stone cottage that once housed Ristorante Savino.

But what kind of a redo is this? Wood beams stretching under the ceiling and wood paneling on the walls were painted Swiss Miss cocoa-brown. Tablecloths are blotched with stains and cigarette burns, and the green carpet is littered with droppings from potted plants.

A sparsely populated wine rack near the front is decorated with pictures, presumably clipped from a magazine, of Italian desserts. What's the tie-in here? A cramped, raised dining area along one wall is cordoned with brass railings. And don't lean back too firmly on the high-backed chairs that populate this elevated space -- they aren't attached to the chair base with much solidity, and you could find your head in one of the original oil paintings that hang on the walls (available for purchase for about $3,000).

Alfredo's blasts you with a musty aroma as you pass through the entrance. The whole thing strikes like a onetime hot spot in Omaha that's been steadily drifting down a culinary slope for a couple of years.

The service picks up on this note and runs with it. On the first visit, the server was insufferable, offering the obligatory notes of grace with terse snarls. On the second visit, the server was eager and friendly, but clumsy. We had a 10-minute greet time in a venue that was barely 40 percent full. After we ordered a bottle of wine, he filled my glass then quickly walked away, neglecting my companion's wine vessel.

Don't count on dessert to rescue this neutered Italian venue either. Forest berry sponge cake, cluttered with currants, blackberries, and raspberries, was limp and soggy instead of supple. New York cheesecake was stiff and elastic with chewy custard edges. Does 3M make desserts now?

Come to think of it, maybe Alfredo's needs more than a little attention. It may need a major redo.

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz