But for a lot of us, an Italian restaurant signifies something akin to going to my friend Larry LaValle’s house in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, on Sunday afternoons when I was a kid. His grandma would be in the kitchen, making me and my brothers and sisters fresh, hot bread, a good, rich tomato sauce from scratch that she’d ladle over manicotti or stuffed shells, some steamed mussels, and maybe a piece of fish with garlic sauce. That kitchen smelled so good and was filled with things that were so delicious that we all wanted to live at Larry’s house.
Well, for people here who live near Boat Club Road, a little piece of the LaValle household has just landed in their backyard. Don’t get me wrong: Sid Beno, chef and co-owner with his wife, Kim Beno, of the recently opened Eagle Grill, doesn’t offer any surprises. But he will satisfy you with solid renditions of basic Italian food that are done well enough to make Nonna LaValle proud. I kid you not.
The place is in the spot formerly occupied for years by Nick’s and then briefly by the Portuguese Café. Not a lot has been done to the interior, but it remains a pretty space, with smooth stucco walls painted to look like stone. Doorways have been turned into arches, a couple of frescoes and small grottos dot the walls, and a small room for private dining in the center of the space gives the main room a more intimate feel. Add some linen tablecloths, and altogether it’s enough to redeem the strip-mall storefront.
Which is good, because dining is what you’re there for. On a recent visit my guests and I sampled four entrées, and all of them were excellent. The eggplant parmigiana was out of this world. Well-seasoned, lightly breaded slices of the purple veggie were fried just long enough to allow their juicy composition and nutty taste to remain intact. Dressed in mozzarella and a light but rich tomato sauce, the vegetable, rather than the cheese or the sauce, was the star of the plate. Though the portion was small — our only complaint is that all of the entrées were on the tiny side — it was served with an ample side of al dente spaghetti in marinara sauce and some of the most wonderful hot Italian rolls in town.
The plate of manicotti was equally superlative. Stuffed with ricotta cheese and seasoned with a hint of nutmeg that gave everything extra zest, the two manicotts, as the Italians say, were topped by two sauces, a white cheese and that excellent tomato, making for a succulent, softly textured blend of mouth-watering flavors.
The house poultry dish, the, um, Eagle Chicken, was a full, sautéed, boneless breast slathered in a simple but delicious brandy cream sauce loaded with sliced mushrooms. Though the menu said the dish came only with a dinner salad — a plain but effective lettuce concoction dressed in decadent, creamy Italian vinaigrette — it arrived with a side of spaghetti marinara as well.
Going with a staffer’s recommendation on our last entrée, we tried the grilled salmon — and weren’t displeased. The fish was fresh and perfectly grilled — slightly crispy outside and pink and moist inside. The sauce — lemon, butter, and white wine — was sweet and rich. As with the other dishes, the main ingredient shone through, with the sauce serving as a complement rather than a cover-up.
Despite the small size of the entrées, we had a lot of them, so by dessert time, we decided to share a crème brûlée. Homemade vanilla custard beneath a crispy lid of caramel, the French delicacy was airy but still rich. We weren’t exactly sure what it was doing in an Italian restaurant, but none of us minded.
Over the past 25 years, the Benos have run several kitchens in the Metroplex, including the Riviera in Granbury, and the experience shows. While the entrées were basic, they were all done with the flair of a chef who has an excellent palate and a desire to see his customers appreciate his food.
Eggplant parmigiana $6.95
Eagle chicken $9:95
Grilled salmon $12.95