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"How so?" we wanted to know. We'd sampled Dinopete's signature chicken wings, bathed in a butter/whole-peppercorn sauce, at a child's first birthday party the week before and had been led to believe the joint was tyke-friendly. The child's mother mentioned that she liked to sing karaoke tunes at the Hollywood eatery. We didn't expect haute cuisine, and we hadn't imagined anything edgier than poor renditions of Kylie Minogue ditties.
"It's drag night," said the bartender, who turned out to be one of the two brothers, Dino and Pete, who own the place. As Dino intended, we felt flutters of trepidation, though not for the soccer-mom reasons he might have supposed. After all, my kids were born and partially raised on South Beach. To them, drag queens are the equivalent of clowns -- oddly frightening when you encounter them in the dark but entertaining when they are where they're supposed to be.
No, the alarm that registered with us had more to do with our experiences in restaurants that rely on gimmicks and novelties. I've had my share of tableside musicians, magicians, comedians, clowns who can make balloons into armadillos, mimes, and unusually limber acrobats; I've been served by members of the transgender generation, Playboy bunnies, S-M mistresses, fire-eaters, sword-swallowers, and even trained animals. In the end, these dining distractions appear deliberately designed to draw the customer's attention away from poorly prepared, bush-league fare. The thought of enduring endless, out-of-key versions of "Unchained Melody" while chomping down appetizers was just a little daunting. The addition of drag queens seemed like pure overkill, the restaurant's way of "protesting too much."
We needn't have worried. Dinopete's poses the following question: Are karaoke songs and home-style Italian fare brought to the table by men who have eyebrows plucked as thin as spaghetti mutually exclusive? This unique spot's answer: Not when both the suppers and those singing for them are actually pretty good.
OK, so there's no future American Idol taking the stage and dance floor, over which disco balls glint. But I was generally impressed with the voices, most of them clearly trained by church or teacher, and the food was the equivalent of a catchy melody -- neither demanding nor disappointing, with a relative high note or two. As for the off-season drag queen who attended our table, he was competent, professional, and just downright fun. After he noted that the hair had grown back on his arms, a discussion regarding the virtues of Nair ensued.
If you're going to take the ambience seriously, you might as well do takeout (an option that Dinopete's is glad to provide, along with banquet and corporate-function planning). Not only are lousy vocalists and unattractive drag queens a potential threat to the sensibilities but the menu is riddled with stereotypical references and tends to skewer Italian-American culture. The notorious chicken wings, for example, are labeled "Goodfellas wings;" Caprese salad is called "mozzarella gabeesh;" and "Pete Paisano" has his own dish, a combo of boneless chicken breast with mushrooms and basil, topped with marinara and mozzarella.
We were particularly fond of the "Las Vegas Rat Pack" pastas, which included a hearty eggplant Parmesan that had been freshened with fresh basil and served with a side of linguine marinara. That marinara, incidentally, is "Mom's," and she sure taught her boys how to make good use of it. She must have also shown them that the key to salad success is gigantic homemade croutons, which almost make up for commercial salad dressings served in plastic takeout containers.
If the place had a mission statement, it would be over-the-top: When in doubt, serve a veritable ton of food. The "Dinopete's Seafood Combo," also known as "Zuppa Joe Pesci," comes over a mound of linguine. Must be a typo there on the menu -- I think they meant pound. Frankly, and I don't mean that in a Sinatra way, I've never seen so much pasta on one person's plate. Then there's the plethora of fresh seafood that comes ladled in tomato sauce on top, which includes mussels, jumbo shrimp, and whole and chopped clams. Our only objection was the nonappearance of a billed Costa Rican lobster tail. But given the amount of other toothsome items, it seems almost petty to complain.
Fish was equally fresh, and a bonus here is mahi-mahi baked with the same butter-peppercorn sauce that garnishes the wings. There's a family story here -- Pete, the cook, came up with the combo for Dino, the frontman, who doesn't enjoy Buffalo-style wings. Thus, invention was born of necessity.
The boys apparently enjoy inventive recipes, and many of them pan out. "Dinopete's World-Famous Stuffed Mushrooms," for instance, include shrimp sautéed in a vibrant garlic-butter-wine sauce, which are then inserted into mushroom caps. The mushrooms in turn are placed in escargot dishes, blanketed with cheese, and baked to oozy perfection. Wipe up the dribs and drabs with an à la carte order of highly potent garlic bread and you've got a surefire ticket to sleeping on the couch. But it's worth the lumpy pillows.