I've usually operated on the premise that if I have a truly awful meal somewhere, it's neither kind nor necessary to loudly publicize that fact. Bad restaurants can fail under the weight of their own leaden gnocchi I figure, and I'm also not so arrogant about my own palate to think that it's the final arbiter of taste.
Nevertheless. The current issue of The Reader (from last Thursday) has a glowing profile (by Laura Levy Shatkin) of an absolutely charming and lovely woman from Rome, who just opened her own restaurant, the eponymous Cucina di Donatella, in Rogers Park. I had occasion to eat there and talk with Donatella de Vette about 2 weeks ago, BEFORE the review was published in the Reader. She is in fact charming and lovely and passionate about her culinary heritage. She speaks warmly about her mother's recipes and about how she's the product of both northern and southern Italian traditions, which she's tried to bring together on the menu.
We started off ordering five dishes, two appetizers and three entrees. In appearance the Caprese Salad was straightforward enough, although pretty lifeless. The cheese wasnt mozzarella di bufala, but I dont think they said it was. Yes, there are some good domestic mozzarellas, but either this wasnt one or someone thought that aging fresh mozzarella was appropriate. The flavor and texture just weren't there. The tomatoes were as bad as they get in a Chicago winter, and had just been pulled out of the icebox to boot. They were ice cold, hard, and flavorless. There was little to no seasoning-- even a great summer tomato's flavor can be brightened by a tiny bit of salt, pepper, and olive oil. I asked for some balsamic vinegar to try to boost this salad into the edible category, and the response from the waiter (Donatella's American husband) was surprise. But he brought me some -- in a metal pitcher. This in itself isn't any great faux pas, but I was already a little suspicious of the whole place (more on that later), and at that point felt like we weren't being told the whole truth about anything on the menu.
Next came the vaunted minestrone soup, eloquently extolled not only in the Reader article but also in a conversation one of my tablemates had with Donatella over the phone, when making the reservation. I'll be brief about what my tongue figured the recipe to be: finely chop up some cruciferous vegetables in your food processor, put them in some boiled water, serve. Oh, I forgot-- lastly drizzle a thin stream of olive oil on top for dramatic effect.
First entree was a fish- Orata (bream?) con fagiolini. Maybe the fish was cooked in cleaning vinegar, or pickled, but the flavor and odor of sour vinegar was so overpowering in this dish as to render it inedible. I have no idea what the mushy green sauce was on top, but that may have been the source of the vinegar flavor. It was probably a blessing that the fish was overcooked, and the portion size so small. For $18, with no side.
Second entree- Straccetti e rucola (steak with arugula). The waiter described this dish in magnificent terms-- a filet cooked to perfection, then sliced very thinly, then tossed with lightly sauteed arugula until the cooking juices blend to form a delicate sauce. What we got was a plate of tough, gristly, shriveled, overcooked, unseasoned "Italian beef" meat, with some unrecognizable, cooked-to-a-pulp greens mixed in. It wasnt edible. If it had been, it should have cost $4.95 with fries, instead of $14 with no side.
Third entree- Fettuccine alla boscaiola (fettuccine in the style of the forester's wife). The waiter described it as: green and white fettuccine cooked al dente and then topped with a ragu of three different kinds of ground meat and equal number of mushrooms, simmered all day long. Hmmm, I thought, it could be her special version of a bolognese sauce, which might be good. I give them credit-- this dish was edible, but only because the pasta was cooked well. The meat "sauce" may have been cooking all day, but they certainly hadn't added any liquid to the simmer. And sauce is perhaps too generous a word, since what came on the plate were pieces of crumbled meat that had been cooked completely dry, and which then fell to the side of the plate, almost refusing to have anything to do with the nice pasta in the middle. Or perhaps it was the other way around, looking at things from the point of view of the pasta. We ate it, because after all, we were a little hungry at that point. Price was around $11 or $12.
There were 4 or 5 kinds of pizza on the menu. We tried to order one, but the waiter told us they were out. At 7:30 on a Friday night. We declined dessert and coffee.
Decor is reminiscent of a partially renovated White Hen Pantry. Bright fluorescent lights and the glare of a Snapple refrigerator case become a little hard on the eyes after a while. Don't miss the photo of Gomer Pyle slurping up a plate of spaghetti, high on the east wall.
Service from the husband-waiter came with a maximum amount of aggressiveness and attitude. Granted we were curious about every dish, and asked a lot of questions about recipes and sources of some unusual ingredients, but his defensiveness was over the top. At the end of the meal he apologized to the table, but it came with a tinge of arrogance and suspicion that seemed to convey the need to protect the value of their franchise.
I'll disclaim now so as to get any possible flame wars settled beforehand. If you've eaten here and like it, it's always chaq'un a son gout on this board, as far as I'm concerned. With dining recommendations its obvious that caveat comesor applies, and one man's meat is another man's poison, . . . and I've probably run out of multi-lingual cliches. Have I been too harsh? Probably, but I thought something should be said after LLS's review, which read like a publicist's dream. Perhaps I've prevented anyone on this board from ever trying it and thus saved you, my virtual tablemates, from falling on an ugly sword. But I also feel as if I'd LIKE someone to go there now and convince me that it's not really as bad as we thought. If you go, it is BYOB.
La Cucina di Donatella
2221 W. Howard
(Right next door to the Fish Keg.)