Ever since Chef Tony Hanslits' outstanding Tavola Di Tosa closed almost a decade ago, the benchmark for Italian restaurants in this town has dropped precipitously. It's almost as if that great establishment and its sister market never existed. I love Italian food, but, based on a number of recent experiences at local eateries, I get the distinct impression that locally the genre has regressed back to 1950's post-war America. Things have evolved a bit beyond the checked tablecloths and raffia-wrapped chianti bottle candlesticks, but I have so far yet to find a restaurant here that even pays lip service to modern Italian gastronomy.
With local chefs constantly pushing the envelope of Midwestern cuisine through their insistence on better ingredients from local sources, why can't the Italian restaurants seem to recognize the diversity of nature's generosity right here on our own doorstep?
Patrick Aasen made quite a name for himself as chef and owner of Arturo's Italian restaurant at 86th Street and Keystone Avenue. The food was well-prepared and enjoyed a lightness of touch that elevated it from the everyday. His new venture in the increasingly fashionable Arts District of downtown Carmel unfortunately displays none of his former flair. Located in a tiny storefront, Donatello's promises a classically romantic and intimate atmosphere. The carpeted floor, however, reminds one of an office space, and the otherwise unbuffered acoustics make conversation a chore at times. On a recent visit, service was frustratingly tortuous and uncoordinated, particularly toward the end of the meal, when such things tend to matter the most.
I'm saving the food for last, almost because it seemed to be a bit of an afterthought itself. Following our server's suggestions, we chose the gorgonzola ravioli ($7), three large stuffed parcels served in a dense and stunningly clogging cheese sauce. I was expecting something lighter and more delicate, like a velouté, perhaps, but this sauce was so thick, it was hard to comfortably finish the dish. In spite of its name, the one flavor lacking, however, was gorgonzola. A daily special of pasta e fagiole soup ($5) was well-prepared and suitably fresh tasting.
Of our two main courses, the spaghetti carbonara ($16), a simple classic which should be an effortless ace in the hole, was marred by the inclusion of strongly-flavored onions. There is no place for onions in this kind of sauce, so the dish went largely uneaten, a fact unnoticed by our server. The second main course, another simple classic, veal parmesan ($20) was soggy and overdone, as if it had sat too long in its own juices.
Although the prices aren't exactly egregious, I really would expect more from a restaurant of this pedigree in this location.
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