I've been reading about Ralphie's Cafe Italiano in Salem, NH for years on Chowhound. Most reviews have been very positive and I keep kicking myself for not making a point to visit.
So, Mr. Rabbit and I finally ended up at Ralphie's tonight. Ralphie's is a cute little spot in a strip mall on Broadway. It's outfitted in classic American Italian style with red and white tablecloths, booths padded in red vinyl, Tiffany-esque lamps hanging from the ceiling and old Rat Pack music adding ambience. Quite charming
Service was super-pleasant and we ordered some admittedly mediocre glasses of $6.00 red that still tasted perfectly delicious considering the price. On our server's recommendation I ordered the housemade ravioli while Mr. Rab went with the braciole, a grandma-style Italian classic of spice beef rolls in red sauce that he was delighted to find on the menu.
Mr. Rab's dish came with choice of soup or salad and the chicken soup was amazing. Nice bits of veg, orzo, plenty of tender white chicken and a lovely broth. Given this wonder, we were really anticipating something great with mains.
Ralphie's makes their ravioli in house and I had a choice of meat or cheese. I opted for half and half. The ravs were huge pillows of thick pasta wrapped around generous dollops of filling. The creamy cheese ravs were the far superior of the two and really quite tasty in and of themselves. The meat version suffered from a filling that was too solid, a flavourless and hard clump of ground meat that was not particularly appetizing (at least IMHO).
Mr. Rab's braciole was a huge plate of beef rings and tomato sauce on top of a generous blanket of peas, mushrooms and onions. The braciole was satisfying in a old school way. Nicely seasoned, I found the meat a bit tough. The peas were clearly canned and so were the mushrooms (which I find totally unacceptable). Mr. Rab enjoyed his dish, and especially the nostalgia factor, but for a $17 plate I would have expected more. His dish came with a huge plate of linguini with Ralphie's own red sauce.
But here's the real problem: The cornerstone of a restaurant like Ralphie's is its red sauce and Ralphie's version was icky. Lacking in flavour, the sauce was ruinously polluted with streams of oil that separated and pooled in yuckified rivers as the food began too cool. It was seriously off-putting, and although I air-lifted my pasta to a side-plate it still turned me off a lot.
We stuck around for dessert and the cannoli (not house made) was quite delicious.
I really, really wanted to like Ralphie's but their sauce was a disaster and wrecked everything that it touched. Our server pointed out that this place has been around for 31 years so I don't know if we hit an off night or what, but I was pretty disappointed. And I won't be going back.
Mr Rab: "The only thing wrong with that place is the red sauce."
Rab: "Yeah, but they put in on everything."