Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Restaurant 29: Roberto's

LOCATION: 603 Crescent Ave., The Bronx
DATE: May 28, 2005
FOOD: Appetizer: Gamberi & Fagoli (Shrimp tossed with white cannellini beans and a sprinkling of balsamic vinegar); Pasta: Bucatini alla tre salse (Long, thick pasta with a blend of three sauces: pesto, mascarpone cheese and a touch of tomato sauce); Penne con salsiccia e broccoli di rapa (Penne with Italian sausage and broccoli rabe sauteed in garlic and oil); Entrée: Pollo alla Chef (Chicken with spinach, proscuitto, mozzarella, and sherry wine); Dessert: Tiramisu; Tartuffo.
BEVERAGE: San Giorgio in Villa, Chianti Classico 2001; Decaf Cappucino
PRICE: $80.00 (for two, courtesy of Libby, with much thanks)

Roberto’s opens for dinner at four p.m. on Saturdays. By five, there’s already a line and by six, the wait for a table is at least an hour. Situated just east of Arthur Avenue, Roberto’s is the highest rated Bronx restaurant in Zagat’s, with a 26 overall. But in the same way ESPN’s pre-season college basketball rankings become inconsequential once the season starts, so too must a restaurant prove itself on its actual food and not exist solely on its reputation. Unfortunately, based on our visit, Roberto’s might be thriving more from hype than substance.

While the atmosphere is buoyant, the portions large and served family style, and the staff more than willing to accommodate any request, Roberto’s Italian fare is only average – a classic example of good but definitely not great offerings. Maybe it’s because traditional Italian has been as overplayed as a CD of the Rolling Stones “Satisfaction” (at Roberto’s, I didn’t get no) stuck on repeat. Or maybe it’s because traditional Italian presents a chef with limitations that inhibit the type of intense flavor innovations utilized so deftly by the likes of Mario Battali and Scott Covent. Whatever the reason, our meal at Roberto’s was more about what went on outside of the kitchen than what emerged from within.

The Gamberi and Fagoli with which we started was an oily mix of shrimp, cannelini beans, bruschetta chunks and balsamic vinegar. While the shrimp was overcooked and the bruschetta sunk by an over application of oil olive, the dish showed some promise, as it was apparent that the saltiness of the beans could contrast well with more expertly prepared shrimp. However, as served, the appetizer tasted like chunky hummus flavored with fish seasoning.

Though the pasta with “tres salse” typically comes with farfalle, Danny and I both prefer wearing bow-ties to eating them, so our waiter graciously allowed us to substitute bucatini. The noodles themselves had been cooked nicely, the long tubes left with a subtle chew. The three sauces however, turned out to be more like one and half, with the rather bland pesto dominating the dish, while the mascarpone and tomato sauce were as absent as John Bolton at an employee sensitivity training session.

Better was the penne, a garlic and olive oil base harmonizing well with the excellent crumbles of Italian sausage and broccoli rabe (which was slightly limpid). With a sprinkling of cheese, this course would have been outstanding, but it was worthwhile even without the dairy, the hearty Italian sausage carrying the other ingredients.

Libby and I split the Pollo alla Chef, which was a surprisingly tender chicken cutlet literally smothered (imagine the type of extra extra extra cheese pizza Rosie O’Donnell must enjoy) in mozzarella. Beneath this white cloud, there was some very tasty spinach and to help alleviate Libby’s fear of all things pork, our waiter served the proscuitto on the side (as in both sides of my plate). While the cheese, like the oil in our opener, was layered too heavily, both Libby and I enjoyed the entrée, despite feeling that we could have easily made the chicken ourselves. There were no secret ingredients for my tongue to decipher – the four components listed on the menu were the only four in the dish.

For dessert, a light and creamy tiramisu was wonderful, while the coffee grind coating on the tartuffo was too thick to allow a fluid blend of ice cream and chocolate shell to form. As our meal concluded, I was struck by both the many near misses of the evening. Every course had seemed to be lacking that certain something to make it really exceptional. There’s no question Roberto’s provides it’s customers with a great night out and a glimpse of the boisterous Italian spirit I’ve come to know only through the cinema. But Zagat’s might need to redo its rating on Roberto’s – like many a preseason All-American has found, the awards handed out before the game starts mean nothing once it does.

RATING: 6.0/10

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