In some high-end cases, a blacked-out item or a hand-corrected price doesn't bode well.
But a good splotch or two can occasionally be a positive thing. For instance, at Angelo's of Mulberry St., the Silvestri family-run, Fort Lauderdale offspring of the well-known Little Italy eatery, the menus are, like a well-read book, in fairly crummy shape: creased, ragged, dog-eared, ripped. They are marked in various places by black Sharpie and what appears to be calf's liver sautéed with onions and vinegar sauce or cannelloni filled with meat, spinach, and ricotta. But if you hold the pages up to the soft lights of this blonde wood-floored and double-tiered dining room, you can see the original type under the permanent marker. And when you realize that the crossed-out prices in question, namely those for a simple shrimp cocktail and a bowl of pasta e fagioli con cozze, have actually been reduced, you forgive the owners. After all, they are saving trees.
You'll be especially forgiving once that pasta e fagioli hits the table. This bowl of homey, aromatic soup is accented with a handful of plump, shelled mussels that adds a neat little bit of brine to the familiar combination of white beans, garlic, and carrots. Maybe I shouldn't say bowl. It's closer to a tureen, so gigantic that, had it been served in a Chinese restaurant, smaller bowls and a ladle would have come along. We simply pushed it to the center of the table and requested more spoons so that everyone in our party could marvel at how the mixed pieces of pasta -- we counted at least three different shapes -- were still al dente. Indeed, I would have paid the original $12 for the soup.
Other blotch-induced ordering was just as successful. One of our menus featured a large, faded, red-sauce stain surrounded by oily fingerprints that looked as if someone had dropped a meatball and then rather ineffectively wiped it off. Rather than off-putting, it was somehow reassuring, as if the customer had decided at the first taste of his rigatoni con polpette to order a secondi piatti. You could just picture the tuxedoed waiters, who reminded us of Tony Soprano in formal wear, shrugging as the meatball dropped and advising the sloppy diner not to let the morsel go to waste. Faced with such evidence, how could we not start salivating for items such as, well, anything with a tomato sauce?
What we found both satisfying and exhilarating was that two pasta dishes that we had asked for as an intermezzo, both dressed in tomato-based sauces, were not just doused with identical marinara. A simple plate of wonderfully fluffy gnocchi was napped with a slightly sweet tomato sauce that had been lightened with velvety, melted mozzarella. The gravy draped over lobster-stuffed ravioli had more tang and a saltier bite. It was a perfect match for the generous garnish of tiny, fresh, bay shrimp that had the snap of crawfish tails. Had I dropped one of those shrimp on the menu, I'd have had no qualms about rescuing it.
In short, the condition of the menus indicates a covenant between restaurant and patron -- judge us not and you'll eat a lot. But that doesn't mean that the waiter won't try to peg you from the moment he delivers your complimentary bruschetta. For instance, our server was clearly astonished when I ordered coniglio piccantino, farm-raised rabbit braised in a light, spicy tomato sauce. He wasn't rude about it, but his raised eyebrows told me that he didn't consider me the bunny type. I not only adore a properly prepared rabbit, I find the dish an excellent way to test a restaurant. And given the moist, mild meat and the just-zesty sauce I was proffered, I'd award Angelo's an "A."
I was also more amused than offended when the waiter, who had certainly taken note of our slightly undressed state, appeared resigned when I ordered one of the least expensive reds from the extensive list of Italian vintages on the wine list (where a range of Super-Tuscans are listed as "on availability" basis). I had another motive that didn't include sticking to my budget; while I liked almost everything about Angelo's of Mulberry, from attitude to atmosphere to the Italian coffee-shop cannolis available for dessert, I thought the Amarones and Chiantis unduly above market price. There was an exception: an underrated but value-driven Montepulciano label.
That said, I'd have no problem trusting the waiter's recommendations next time. He directed us away from other starchy possibilities toward both pastas, and after listing a sumptuous-sounding hot antipasto special that sounded as if it would simply be too much food, suggested that we sample only one of the items as an appetizer. We were delighted with his brainstorm, which resulted in a luscious spedini dressed in a vibrant but not intrusive lemon sauce. Essentially an egg-dipped, deep-fried, bread-and-cheese sandwich, the spedini reminded us of a more tender -- but less filling -- croque monsieur. He also, in response to a query that essentially amounted to, "What's the best veal dish?" steered us toward a succulent and delicious scaloppini that had been sautéed with baby peas, prosciutto, and Madeira. The dish cost just under 20 bucks. He could have tried to sell us a veal chop for $32. And when asked his preference concerning beef, he allowed that the braciole di maiale al ragu, pounded and rolled beef stuffed with seasoned breadcrumbs and moistened with rich tomato gravy, was quite possibly one of the best dishes on the menu.
He was, of course, correct. It was apparent that staffers not only work at Angelo's of Mulberry, they eat there as well. Too bad he didn't steer us away from the varieta di pesce alla Angelo, however. The assortment of seafood -- red snapper, squid, shrimp, and scallops -- was uniformly overcooked, and its bland, lemon-garlic sauce paled in comparison to the superb concoctions that graced every other dish. Which in the end may explain why the menus have plenty of red stains but no yellow ones.