It feels like I’m in the movie Groundhog Day almost every time I step into an Italian restaurant in this city. There are of course some notable exceptions, like Aventino’s Italian Restaurant (5800 Lovell Ave.), Piola Italian Restaurant & Garden (3700 Mattison Ave.), and Nonna Tata (1400 W. Magnolia Ave.), where the fare is distinctive. But so many of them seem interchangeable — they have the same generic Italian décor, the same sauce-heavy menus, and similar prices. I spent some time visiting the area look-a-likes (said in a cartoonish Italian accent) to see if they’d prove me wrong.
Fortuna Italian Restaurant (5837 Camp Bowie Blvd.) met all the criteria on my red-sauce check list: It had some version of the Italian flag in the logo (check), generic Italian countryside mural (check — bonus points for wall sconces filled with fake plants and fake bread), all the typical pasta, sauce, pizza, sub, and appetizer variations (check), and delicious fluffy, warm dinner rolls (check).
I have to admit, though, that sophistication was lurking in the corners. The ingredients tasted fresh, the sauces featured fresh herbs instead of dried, and each dish seemed to have something that elevated it. The batter on the fried calamari appetizer ($6) was light and crispy, though the whole dish could have used a little more salt. The rigatoni Bolognese ($7.99) was a real treat, with its creamy marinara sauce and chunks of flavorful ground beef. The sauce on the tortellini gorgonzola ($7.99) was rich, cheesy, and creamy, with bits of artichoke and green onion. The dish really could have used more acid or something to cut the intense cheese flavor.
Milano’s Ristorante (3416 W. 7th St.) and Prima Pasta and Pizza (6108 S. Hulen St.) take restaurant sameness to another level, as far as their menus go. There are some distinguishing features in the décor –– Prima is like Milano’s eccentric uncle. Both menus are filled with the usual suspects but, like Fortuna, they boast high quality, fresh-tasting ingredients.
Both places have been around a while and are still packing ’em in. On a recent visit to Milano’s, which is now a mini-chain, the small dining room was full, and there was about a five-minute wait. Ordering at that place is like spinning a roulette wheel where every color is marinara red. The chicken parmigiana ($7.95) was drenched in gooey mozzarella and a bright-tasting tomato sauce. The phone book-sized battered chicken was fork-tender, and the whole thing tasted homey and delicious.
My Prima experience was almost a carbon copy of Milano’s. But this time the wheel landed on an Italian sausage sub ($6.99), bathed in marinara and served in a toasted bun. The sausage casing had a nice snap and throat-tickling spice, and the bread didn’t turn to paste despite being almost completely engulfed in marinara sauce.
The red-sauce style of cuisine has its time and place: namely when you’re looking for an inexpensive meal and want to eat your body weight in carbs. None of these joints has ever claimed to be innovative, but maybe they should give it a whirl. Nobody would rip that flag off the wall in dishonor.
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