A nod to a place that's proven its name 

With little fanfare, Bertolini’s continues to serve quality bistro-style Italian

In the rush to cover a city’s most recent openings, closings, changes in kitchen staff and wine-soaked charity events, a restaurant critic can get his priorities mixed up. Sometimes in trumpeting only the newest, flashiest eateries, he forgets the places where the same chef has been dutifully putting out respectable plates of food for a decade or more, where a steady clientele has eaten and eaten again, as satisfied with the last meal as the first. Good food, after all, isn’t just what promises the best story. In truth, there’s a lot buzzing around Indy’s culinary scene right now, but so much is stalled or not yet ready for public consumption that it’s time to step back and consider a place that long ago secured its reputation as a quality eatery.

But who could imagine that Bertolini’s is already old school? Back when it opened in the early days of Circle Centre Mall, the dining situation downtown was so depleted that Bertolini’s added much needed variety. Now that the culinary scene has exploded at the city center, restaurants, even franchises, need to be team players, making gestures toward locals while feeding legions of tourists. To its credit is the fact that Bertolini’s has kept just one chef, Indy native Tim McGuire, at the helm of its kitchen for nearly all its years in business. His experience in local Italian kitchens has clearly served him well.

Recently, Bertolini’s has been hosting a series of wine and, perhaps more interesting, beer dinners with drink pairings and special dishes by Chef McGuire. Their next one, a tapas-themed event, is scheduled for June 6. This summer, general manager Mike Colleluori is organizing a pasta cook-off with the Indianapolis Fire Department to benefit people displaced by fires. With some recent menu changes emphasizing Italian standards, Bertolini’s definitely deserves a second look.

But why Bertolini’s when Indy is already top heavy with Italian eateries? Bertolini’s stands apart because it fills a niche few other places do. You won’t mistake this for a rustic neighborhood trattoria; it’s too corporate for that. But it doesn’t approach the raucous, over-the-top shtick of the often parodic “big” Italian chains with waiters belting out arias to customers starved for gimmick. Here, you can actually eat a fairly modest meal in fairly straightforward surroundings — and hear your dinner conversation without shouting.

Still, some quirks need some attention. Despite its wine dinners, regular wine service is utterly uninspiring. Pedestrian, all-too-available reds come served in generic white wine glasses, even though several push the $10 mark per glass. Service can disappoint as well. We had to prompt our waiter for bread and new silverware between courses, as well as remind him of a wine order, which arrived after our food. A side Caesar salad showed up with the entrée, instead of before it.

But many things make it worth returning. An appetizer of eggplant parmigiana ($7.95) is surprisingly light and flavorful, the eggplant cut quite thin and served with one of the better red sauces around town, tangy with just a hint of spice. Definitely not lacking in flavor are the brick oven pizzas. The chicken marinato ($11.95) is a little overdressed, but its chewy crust with plenty of cornmeal, as well as spinach sautéed with whole garlic cloves — pow! — and plenty of red pepper really give the palate a workout. With a judicious treatment of a meaty sauce, quality parmesan and some unmistakably al dente noodles, the spaghetti Bolognese ($13.50) is a comforting dish you can rely on after days of power shopping.

Veal piccata ($21.95), a recent menu addition, was unfortunately gummy, with far too much discernable flour, rendering an otherwise flavorful caper sauce viscous and pasty. But accompanying green beans were delicious: garlicky, well-seasoned and surprisingly tender when beans are so often served nearly raw. The Caesar salad ($4.95) had some quite crisp, fresh romaine, but its dressing and croutons have almost no bite of garlic or lemon, and no anchovies were offered. This was surprising at a place that puts out some impressive — and colossal — dinner salads. Among desserts, tiramisu, though enough for a family, is actually quite light and creamy. Gelatos ($2.25/small), in flavors like pistachio and an amaretto-heavy tiramisu, are sweet enough to make your teeth tingle, but they’re all homemade, another touch that gives soul to a chain that has satisfied diners long after the dust has settled.

49 W. Maryland St.

Monday-Thursday: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Friday-Saturday: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Sunday: noon to 8 p.m.

Food: Three and a half stars
Atmosphere: Three stars
Service: Two and a half stars

Nonsmoking, Handicapped accessible

Recommended dishes: Dinner salads, eggplant parmigiana, brick-oven pizzas, gelati

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