Grissini's is a cut above the field 

The first thing one wonders is this: Why did they do it? True, in their previous location near the Medical Center, Grissini was head-to-head with the formidable Aldo’s, but at Lincoln Heights, Paesano’s and Piatti are nearby competitors for the Italian dining dollar. A drive-by on a recent weekday evening showed both of their parking lots to be respectably full while the slots in front of Grissini were conspicuously empty.

Then there’s the issue of the menu. Before the move, it was dependably quirky and full of dishes not seen on most local menus. Now? It reads like a list of tried-and-true Italian-American favorites — the scaloppini hit parade, in other words. The longer we looked at it, the harder it was to pick something that sounded even remotely enticing.

But the reviewer’s job is to evaluate the restaurant that is, not the one he wishes it were, and with the arrival of the calamaretti alla griglia, it began to be apparent that there was more here than meets the eye. These calamari were a cut above the fare that has become a cliché on local menus of almost any ethnicity — in part because they weren’t cut. Into little breaded rings, that is. What you get here is small but whole squid bodies (along with their separated tentacles) that have been simply grilled with olive oil and very little more. Served on a bed of wilted greens and dressed with a squeeze of lemon, they are simple and simply sensational, the texture being just al-dente enough to keep them real. No knee-jerk marinara sauce was served and none needed apply.

Next to arrive was the insalata di radicchio with gorgonzola and candied walnuts. Visually, it could have used a face lift; the plate read like chopped radicchio and little more, the cheese having been cut into small cubes and the nut pieces smitten with a bout of shyness. But with a rudimentary dressing that heightened contrasts between bitter, creamy, and sweet, the salad was the perfect bridge between seafood and more seafood — and also a steak.

Yawn. A filet of beef in Barolo sauce with shallots — apart from the wine, how Italian is that? Maybe more than one might imagine. Especially in northern Italy, where tomato sauce doesn’t occupy pride of place on every plate, a good ingredient is often left to speak for itself. Pair that approach with another Italian trait, exuberance, and you wind up with a dish that has it all: What at first appears to be way too many sliced shallots play against a deep and dark sauce cloaking a beautiful cut of beef. That beef may have been just a little rarer than ordered, but nothing was out of place. And the simple sides of spinach and oven-roasted potato wedges were just what was needed to make for a well-rounded meal.

What’s side for the steak is not necessarily side for the seafood — except that at Grissini it is; the spinach and spuds were really better suited to the beef than the Amberjack alla Contadina. But maybe that’s because the main ingredient in this peasant-style dish wasn’t up to the task of carrying a simple sauce with lots of fresh basil, garlic, and tomatoes. Maybe if it had been served as a single, thick piece instead of two thin ones, the fish might have been less dry, but the taste didn’t thrill in any event. Come to think of it, without the fish, the sauce, the potatoes, and the spinach were just fine together.

To change the tone of things, now’s a good time to mention that, although it’s true the staff didn’t have much to do (remember the nearly empty parking lot), the service was efficient and very pleasant. The dim (remember that, too) environment is pleasant enough as well, without being in any way distinctive. And the wine list, all-Italian save for Champagnes, will reward the adventurous. In honor of an upcoming trip to Italy’s Veneto/Trentino region, we ordered a regional merlot (yes, a much-maligned merlot), the 2006 Angelini Montello e Colli Asolini. Very tight, tart, and European at first, it blossomed over the course of a more than two-hour dinner (a good thing, by the way) into a beautifully nuanced creature with cherry and raspberry mediating tobacco and leather.

Although the reserve wine list tops out at $375 for an Angelo Gaja offering, prices in general are not punishing. The entrées, on the other hand, rise to the $36 level, and despite the fact that we had been surprised by the quality of much of the food and seduced by the wine and service into having a good time, that level seems a little pushy. The bill for two, ordering judiciously and with a bottle of wine at around $36, came to over $140 before tip. Being equally cautious, you can dine for the same at some of the city’s sanctioned temples of alta cucina.

Yet, as is often the case, a good dessert (or two) can do much to ease the pain. Grissini is especially proud of its “prize-winning” tiramisu, a dessert I often find tired and untrue. The constant in this much-varied classic is a sieved layer of cocoa powder coating what can be a layered pudding with espresso-soaked lady fingers, or more of a trifle with genoise, and even rum or marsala and apricot jam. Grissini opts for the layered look, and the custard, coffee, and chocolate all added up to a light and appealing evening-ender — served, somewhat incongruously, to the strains of “Bye, bye Miss American Pie …” A rolled almond cake with marzipan and amaretti was also impressive. Despite the price, there should be more cars in the parking lot.

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Ristorante Grissini
999 E. Basse
(210) 615-7270

The Skinny Don’t let the rote menu scare you off of some fine Italian fare, even if the bill’s a hair unsettling.

Don’t Miss The calamaretti alla griglia and the fillet of beef in Barolo sauce

Hours 5:30-10:30pm Mon-Sat

Prices $13-$36

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Peachy keen

click to enlarge food_grissini_cmyk1jpg

Fredericksburg peaches are due at market stands this Memorial Day weekend, but don’t start drooling just yet. Cling peaches arrive first, so named because the fruit hangs onto the pit, making a juicy mess when you eat them. That trait — annoyingly fresh — makes Clings a perfect match for this Julia Child recipe. Ripen them first, says gotexan.org liaison Robert Maggiani, by putting them in a paper bag for a couple of days.

Elaine Wolff

CURRENT RECIPE

Compote of Fresh Peaches with Raspberry Puree

First, make the syrup:
6 c water
2 1/2 c granulated sugar
2 T vanilla extract or a vanilla bean

Combine the ingredients in a saucepan and simmer while stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Add 10 firm, ripe, unblemished, fresh peaches about 2 1/2 inches in diameter. Bring again to the simmer, and maintain at just below a simmer for eight minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and let peaches cool in the syrup for 20 minutes. Drain the peaches on a cake rack; peel while still warm, and arrange in a 2-inch-deep serving dish. Chill.

Make the berry compote:

Force one quart fresh raspberries through a sieve and place the puree in an electric blender along with 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar. Cover and blend at top speed for two to three minutes, or until puree is thick and sugar has dissolved completely. Chill. (Alternatively, beat puree and sugar for about 10 minutes with an electric beater.)
When both puree and peaches are chilled, pour the puree over the peaches and return to refrigerator until serving time. Decorate with fresh mint leaves.


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