Saturday, February 09, 2008

Now That's (Waco) Italian

When I arrived in Waco several years ago an acquaintance told me that there was no decent Italian food in town. It took only a few short months to confirm that he was correct. In the subsequent years, there has not even been a hopeful prospect open.

Every new venture we get here is another chain, another Mexican food place, another barbecue joint, or another steak and burger house. You can count the number of chef owned/family owned restaurants that have appeared in recent years on the fingers of one hand.

Let’s do a quick rundown of the available Italian choices in Waco. The Big 2 are both reputable chains – Carino’s Italian Grill (I think they have dropped Johnny) is a national brand that owns, operates, and franchises over 170 restaurants in 29 states and a few in the Middle East. The originators are an Austin, Texas based group named Fired Up Inc. It was started in 1997 by two former Brinker (Chili’s and On the Border) employees.

The Olive Garden is owned by an industry giant The Darden Group. Darden Restaurants is the #1 casual-dining operator (in terms of revenue) with more than 1,600 restaurants in the US and Canada. Its flagship chains include seafood segment leader Red Lobster and top Italian-themed concept Olive Garden. Both chains cater to families with mid-priced menu items, themed interiors, and primarily suburban locations.

I think most people in Waco have probably eaten at Carino’s or its main competitor The Olive Garden. Both have signature gimmicks (bread sticks and salad vs a fresh bread loaf served with a seasoned olive oil dip) that have stood the test of time. I know that many people go to OG for just the salad and bread sticks alone.

I know people long for a Macaroni Grill or maybe even a Carrabbas in our town. We could set our sights a bit higher and hope for an excellent chef-owned Italian dining experience. But the OG and Johnny are what we have and they are what they are. Both of these chains serve average pasta and Italian dishes that appeal to a broad range of tastes and budgets. The Olive Garden gets a slight nod for having a few more adventurous offerings and specials and a far better wine program. If there were no other choices then eating at the OG or with Johnny would be understandable.

I do think that Gratziano's Restaurant is worth a mention although I can truthfully say that I have only ordered from their menu once. Their lunch buffet for $6.99 is a good value featuring soup, salad, pizza, two or three pastas, dessert, and a rotating chicken entree. All are OK for a quick lunch. The quality has improved from two or three years ago. I don't usually think of it as an evening stop because I eat lunch there fairly often. It is never really crowded at lunch, it is quiet enough to talk, and the brownies are tasty. The decor is a little tired after several years and could use a bit of upkeep. New table covers, tables that fit on the carpet, and some better lighting might give the place a new look.

What else is there here in Waco? I guess I won’t even mention Fazioli’s. How about Baris? My wife calls it M-Baris. I will admit that I have eaten at a couple of incarnations of the Baris Empire including the newest, Mama Baris located in the Hewitt/South Waco end of town. Although it really isn’t any better than the chains, it is locally owned.

That brings us to the new guy in town Rosati’s. And guess what? It’s a chain as well! The Rosati Family started a small restaurant in New York in 1895. They later moved to Chicago and ran an import business until they opened another restaurant in 1927. The Family expanded into the suburbs in 1959 and in 1979 began franchising their concept of Authentic Chicago Pizza. A least 10 Rosati family members owned carryout-style restaurants. Then a bad thing happened. Family members/stockholders disagreed about who could franchise the restaurants and a bunch of legal stuff happened. Now there seems to be a lot of different Rosati’s all over the place. Waco’s franchise is the first in Texas.

Located in the Wal-Mart parking lot on Hewitt Dr. at Imperial, Rosati’s has been open for over a year. It has recently added some space next to the takeout pizza counter. The expansion was needed and judging from the crowds on Fridays and Saturdays they probably could expand again. The tables are packed together and the noise level is high. This is family pizza parlor ambience not a romantic candle lit bistro. Go early or plan on a wait.

I have eaten Rosati’s food on several occasions during the past months. Their pizza comes in three different thicknesses – traditional thin (which I didn’t particularly like) – Double Dough and Chicago-Style – a deep pan variety. I can recommend the latter two as very good. This pizza is not cheap. Expect to pay between $12 and $20 for a large pizza with two or more ingredients. The crust is crispy, thick (but not doughy), and flavorful. The toppings were plentiful with a good balance between the cheese and tomato sauce. The Chicago-style looks great when it is brought to the table.

A discussion of who has the best pizza in Waco is reserved for a future post. For now, I think you can say that Rosati’s is representative of Chicago Pizza and could be ranked in any Waco Top Ten List.

Rosati’s offers an array of sandwiches and lunch specials that are reasonably priced and some are very tasty. The Vienna Beef Chicago hot dog may remind some of Chicago, and the meatball sandwich is a good choice.

Rosati’s has a very tasty marinara sauce that is puts to good use on a limited variety of pastas. It has a bright and tangy tomato flavor with a hint of lemon. Get a $2.50 side of large meatballs to add some oomph. I was less impressed by the meat sauce that didn’t seem nearly as tasty.

This is the section of the menu that could be improved by adding a few additional choices. I do not taste as though they are using fresh-made pasta. My mostaccioli arrived well past al dente. Why not add some linguine, fettuccine, or penne a specials? If you stick with basic spaghetti or ravioli you will be OK. The pasta entrees come with one bread stick. No replacement was offered. I was disappointed in the Baked Lasagna. Both my tastings of this dish have had a strange flavor in the ricotta layers that I did not find agreeable. The price range for a nice sized serving of pasta is from $7 to $9.

Many restaurants will allow you to add on a dinner salad to your pasta entrĂ©e for a reasonable additional charge. Rosati’s smallish house salad or Caesar costs an additional $4 and the tablespoon of accompanying dressing is served in a tiny plastic cup.

They have an active bar that features a broad range of beverages, frozen drinks, and martinis. The modest selection wine is below average even for Waco. My recent dinner for four that included a medium pizza and four pasta selections approached $60. Not outrageous but not a bargain/value either.