Restaurant Reviews

Discomfort Food

My sister called me the other day with a dilemma. "I don't know whether to be thin or fat," she complained.

I know it looks funny on paper, but I understood her problem right away. See, my sister lives in Manhattan, and naturally, like every other New Yorker, she's feeling plenty of fallout. Aside from the trauma over the World Trade Center attacks, she faces the stresses of daily living in the city: security checkpoints, three-hour traffic jams, the looming fear that there's another target close to home. Not to mention that her younger sis is apparently living in the terrorists' nest, feathered with flight manuals and anthrax concoctions, here in South Florida. So she's freaked out. Thus one day she'll have no appetite at all, the next she'll consume three pints of Häagen-Dazs for dinner.

Foodwise my sister embodies the dialectic we're likely to see in American diners during these times of war. Some of us will turn to austerity. The rest will turn to junk food. Indeed the Los Angeles Times noted that, in the week following the attack, pizza and burger joints reported, unlike other restaurants, no loss in profits. And The New York Times has spotted a trend of fatalism: Folks are going to be eating more, drinking more, and smoking more, if only because during these strange days that have no history and no future in their seams, we need to get our kicks where we can and damn the consequences.

I'm all for it. "Fat," I told my sister. "Be fat." And I intend to advise myself the same way -- with perfect indulgence. I'm going to smother my worries in piles of mashed potatoes and gravy. I'm going to bury my fears in the heart of a chocolate cake. If anthrax is destined to be my fate, then I'm going to allow tubfuls of triple-cream Explorateur cheese to challenge it in a race to, well, the death.

To start my campaign of killing myself with comfort food, I hung up on my sister, who mumbled her goodbye through a soupspoonful of dulce de leche ice cream. Then I gathered a couple of friends and headed back to Conca D'Oro, a 25-year-old Hollywood eatery I haven't entered since I was pregnant last year (which was the last time I got my culinary kicks where I could and damned the consequences, much to my postpartum dismay). For dietary reasons I usually avoid the calorie-laden, Italian home-style fare this casual and popular place offers -- there's generally nothing redeeming about platefuls of carbohydrates and high-fat cheeses and olive oil-soaked marinara. But when I'm in a funk, the stolid meatballs and baked casseroles of Italian-American cuisine lend my stomach the kind of touch that a mother's hand does to a kid's feverish brow.

Usually, that is. For comfort food to be actually comforting, it also has to be good. And the overseasoned, overcooked dishes at Conca D'Oro recently offered such little solicitude that I'm far more likely to be anorexic than obese after a couple meals here.

The stracciatella alone was enough to bum me out. This soup, the name of which means "little rag picker," is supposed to be chicken broth into which beaten egg is stirred; the egg cooks on contact with the broth and resembles feathery, frayed scraps of cloth. But if the egg in Conca D'Oro's version constituted scraps, they came from a giant's suit of clothes. Huge chunks of egg were dense and soggy, as if they had been scrambled earlier in the day (or week) and then dropped into reconstituted chicken bouillon. The fact that the stracciatella was barely warm seemed to reinforce the idea that it had been premade.

Other foodstuffs needed to be laid to rest rather than served. The quartered tomatoes in the house salad -- an uninteresting mélange of iceberg lettuce, black and green olives, and pepperoncini -- were so mealy from freezer burn that they appeared on the verge of disintegration. Rings of calamari, sautéed in a fra diavolo sauce as an entrée, were the color of old pencil erasers and the texture of dried rubber cement. Chalk another mouthful up to covert removal by paper napkin.

Of course part of Conca D'Oro's charm lies in the paper napkins, the red-and-white-checked tablecloths, the worn rabbit-warren of rooms, and the waitresses who break off in the middle of taking your order because their numbers have flashed on a screen, advising them that another party's pizza or eggplant Parmesan sub awaits them in the kitchen. In fact I've always enjoyed the unpretentious nature of this eatery. So when I ordered a side dish of broccoli with my chicken cacciatore and the server read it back to me as broccoli rabe, I was sincerely surprised that Conca D'Oro would purvey the more upscale vegetable. Also known as rapini, rabe is a member of the mustard family. Yet when it arrived, it was not the rabe she had claimed but regular ol' broccoli, kin to the cabbage, and I do mean ol': The vegetable had been cooked far too long, with a lot of garlic, and tasted reheated.

With a little leeriness, we ordered a $35 bottle of Amarone from a wine list as brief as Pamela Anderson Lee's shorts, and with a little sigh of relief, we learned that the wine (whatever vineyard it was supposed to be from) wasn't in stock. The familiar vintages are probably the most logical ways to go -- not that there's much choice -- and at $29 for a Santa Margherita pinot grigio, the markup is bearable.

In fact that's a pretty apt description for the rest of the items we sampled. Nothing was startlingly good, not even a house specialty of lasagna laden with sliced, overly spiced sausage and so much ricotta cheese that the long, curly noodles were barely noticeable. A New York- style pizza was crisp and featured a generous amount of the toppings we'd ordered, but it lacked some moisturizing sauce. Plus, the mushrooms that garnished both the pizza and the chicken cacciatore were canned, a shortcut that detracts from the quality. As for the chicken itself, while our waitress had warned us that it was served on the bone, she'd neglected to tell us that aside from a little bit of skin, it was all bones. Clams casino, a starter, comprised an unequal ratio of clams to stuffing -- as in a little to a lot -- but at least the shellfish were fresh and the stuffing, though overwhelming, had a nice flavor imparted by sweet bell peppers.

The best dishes were the simple meat preparations some of us use as benchmarks for Italian restaurants. The meatballs, fist-size sculptures of savory ground beef gently enhanced with bright marinara, passed muster pleasingly. Veal Parmesan, whether you get it as a submarine sandwich or a dinner, will also no doubt satisfy, as the veal was thoroughly pounded and lightly breaded before being fried, sauced, and topped with melted mozzarella. If you order it as a dinner, you also receive a generous bowl of spaghetti, linguine, or ziti -- a plus for robust appetites.

Still, no amount of heartiness or cost-effectiveness can disguise the fact that Conca D'Oro is not quite as consolatory as it once was. In fact it's pretty hard to pillow a waistline when no single dish compels a customer to finish it, which means that if you're like my sister and can't quite decide in what culinary direction to travel -- asceticism or gluttony -- Conca D'Oro can help you choose which way to go. Eat here often enough, and despite the calorie count of the food, you will grow thin.

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick