Maggiano’s takes us back to the good old days Those who think that I might be going a little soft in the head for reviewing yet another chain restaurant might not be entirely wrong. The problem, as we all know, is that this is the way things are going these days. The chains are camped out for the long haul, and the majority of diners are chowing down with unmitigated abandon. All I’m doing here is trying to reflect the mood of the people, so please bear with me for the next 22 months. Maggiano’s Little Italy offers a family dining experience designed to take us back to the good old days before TV, when every dish was “just like Mamma used to make.” Dishes here are enormous, so come either very hungry, or with friends, or risk leaving the place heavily laden with Styrofoam containers and plans to eat pasta for at least the next three days. If this all sounds a bit like Buca di Beppo, it is, except that Maggiano’s menu is slightly more pan-Italian, and there isn’t a pope’s bust lazy Susan in sight. From the outside, you can tell that the folks at Maggiano’s didn’t spare a penny when it came to décor. The original building on this site, the architecturally-challenged Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, has evaporated without a trace, and has been replaced with a rather more elegant structure that promises good things within. Inside, there’s plenty of polished hardwood and shiny, burnished surfaces. The bar area is spacious and pleasantly old fashioned, copiously stocked and staffed by a well-dressed, professional-looking staff who clearly know their drinks. The dining rooms offer discreetly spaced tables, chandeliers and more polished wood. The checkered tablecloths, about the only concession to Italian restaurants of yore, seem to have a tendency to fly off the tables at the merest hint of a movement or a passing breeze. This situation has the potential to be embarrassing, and should probably be addressed. Upon entering Maggiano’s recently for a quick bite, Amy-Lynn and I were met with two surprises, one pleasant, the other not quite so. The first was the sight of so many former employees of Peter’s gainfully employed and seemingly happy to have washed up at such a smart establishment. Peter’s, as you may recall, closed rather suddenly a few weeks ago, leaving some of the best waitstaff in town wondering where their next check was going to come from. So, all’s well that ends well on that front, at least for now. The second surprise was that we were told by the hostess that the wait for a table was in the order of an hour to 90 minutes. Frankly, I was mildly stunned by this news, but such is the mass appeal of the big chains these days that I really shouldn’t have been. As we stood debating whether to come back at another date, a gentleman next to us assured us that in Chicago the wait was more like two hours, and well worth it. Now, I could see waiting two hours to get into a tony independent with limited seating, but a massive chain establishment? We decided to wait to see for ourselves what all the fuss was about. Should you find yourself in a similar situation, forced to twiddle your thumbs in the bar for an hour or so, then I strongly recommend trying the Bellini. This has to be the hottest drink in town: Just about every decent Italian restaurant is offering one version or another. Originally served at Harry’s Bar in Venice, this most excellent drink is a blend of peach nectar and (usually, but not in this case) prosecco (an Italian sparkling wine). It can also be fortified with a splash of vodka, and is frequently served as a frappé. The sculptor whose name it takes would probably be proud of Maggiano’s version, which is refreshing and decidedly more-ish. While at the bar, we decided to indulge in an appetizer plate. The Bombalina ($12.95) offers a selection of the restaurant’s favorite appetizers, including stuffed mushrooms, deep fried zucchini, bruschetta and a huge bowl of spinach and artichoke dip. Although the mushrooms were a bit on the bland side, and the dip excessively salty, this platter would make an ideal starter for a party of four or so. As there were just two of us, we left the majority of our food on the plate. Once in the dining room we ordered a half serving of the excellent gnocchi in a creamy tomato sauce ($11.95, $14.95 for a full order). Firm without being heavy, and seemingly made with regular flour as opposed to potato, these were excellent specimens, even though the half portion was still far too much for us to finish. In addition, we ordered the veal scallopini, piccata style ($18.95). This was a straightforward rendition that could have used a touch more lemon juice to give it a bit of zip. The generous bed of garlicky spinach was an excellent touch, however, and it even heated up nicely for lunch the following day. In addition to these dishes, we also tried a half order of farfalle (bowtie pasta) with chicken, asparagus and spinach in a parmesan broth. For $10.95, this was a generous portion, but a touch bland. If I have a single complaint about the main courses at Maggiano’s, it is that too much of the flavor is derived from generous additions of salt, and not enough from the ingredients. The veal dish, in particular, was excessively salty. Throughout our meal, service was friendly and attentive, although I wasn’t quite sure how to react when our server offered to “explain the pasta dishes to us.” I might look boyishly young to some, but think that I’ve probably been around long enough by now to know what spaghetti bolognese and garlic bread are all about. Maggiano’s sports a decent wine list whose strengths lie more in the California department than in the Italian. Prices are oddly structured, with some being quite reasonable, quite close to retail, in fact, and others being disproportionately expensive. Compared with the average entrée, wine prices are generally on the steep side, though, and I would certainly welcome some more imaginative Italian selections from, say, Puglia or the Veneto. The fact that there isn’t a prosecco on the list is bothersome. This issue should also be rectified, if only to lend authenticity to the Bellini. While there is far better Italian dining to be enjoyed around town, Maggiano’s offers great value if you’re with a group of four or more. Just don’t expect to get in and out in under an hour. Hear Neil Charles each Friday morning at 9 on WXNT-AM, 1430. Maggiano’s Little Italy3550 E. 86th St. 814-0700 Monday-Saturday 11-11 Sunday 12-10 Food : 3 stars Atmosphere : 3 1/2 stars Service : 4 stars

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