Multitasking is nothing new to downtown businesses, especially when it comes to nightlife. Think of Modified Arts (an art gallery/music venue), the OnePlace (an alternative church/music venue), or the Paper Heart (an art gallery/bar/performance space), places that successfully switch gears when the sun goes down.
So I wasn't entirely surprised to hear that Palazzo, the Central Avenue dance club located between two other popular nightspots, Amsterdam and Club Dwntwn, started serving lunch and dinner this summer. It's a bustling scene on weekends, especially when legions of black-clad, fetish-friendly types show up for a Friday night event called Tranzylvania. I know several regulars.
And with all the talk lately about how the new ASU campus is going to bring so many students to the area the grand opening celebration was just a few days ago and how a new wave of funky shops, bars, and restaurants will inevitably open up to cater to them, I figured Palazzo was early evidence of that.
Until I ate there, I hadn't really thought about the difference between what Palazzo is trying to do versus what a place like Modified does so well. The folks at Modified know not to try to sell food more involved than a Blow Pop. Music and art? No problem. You can even throw in a full bar. But running a restaurant as an add-on is deadly, as Palazzo demonstrates all too well.
From my first lunch at Palazzo on, my dining companions and I couldn't stop giggling about the atmosphere. The vast space resembled the set of a vampire sitcom, with visible dance club lights and speakers, and pseudo-sumptuous Italian decor. There were faux wrought-iron wall ornaments covered in faux ivy, tapestries, and a chandelier in the middle of the room. Along one wall was a row of dark leather couches, where I could imagine drunken revelers resting their platform stilettos. All of this works in a dimly lighted club, where people are more focused on flagging down a bartender or meeting strangers. But in the harsh daytime glare coming in through the skylights, things looked tacky. Not once did I forget that I was sitting in the middle of the dance floor.
One of my dining companions said it made her feel "exposed." (That, and the fact that for a large part of the meal, we were the only bodies in the room.)
Another time, a dining companion chuckled, "I can't stop thinking about the cloak-and-dagger crowd."
I couldn't, either. Maybe it's because I'm aware of Palazzo's big secret that the walls are covered in sexy murals that aren't visible to the naked eye unless they're illuminated by a black light. Obviously, this only happens after the tables are cleared away and the goths take over, but still. It wasn't helping my appetite.
(Later on, I laughed my ass off thinking of these murals and reading on Palazzo's Web site about how the proprietors "have traveled abroad studying cuisine and service around the world in order to bring you the erotic pleasure of fine food.")
As for the food, it was hit or miss. Mostly, I kept thinking about how we weren't getting our money's worth. And I have an expense account!
I sampled three out of five antipastos. I liked the taste of the tomato, cheese and sweet sausage filling in the zucchini e farcite, although the zucchini itself was barely cooked. Olive miste was eight kinds of olives (with and without pits) in two bowls. The portion was so big that we laughed about that, too. In any case, I could go to AJ's for the same thing.
Carciofo marinato was a whole marinated artichoke with roma tomatoes, feta, and aged balsamic, and it sounded a lot better on the menu. The disappointing reality was an artichoke plopped on a plate, with the tomatoes nestled separately near a lonely square of cheese. There was a thick stripe of vinegar alongside these disparate components, and although it was tangy, the texture was like slime.
The same aged balsamic came in a tiny dish with the bruschetta, too, and that weird consistency made it hard to even scoop up with the tip of my knife. (We weren't given spoons.) The bruschetta itself wasn't bad eight slices of fresh, lightly toasted bread with four toppings: artichoke; grilled peppers; white bean; and tomato, basil and mozzarella. Thing is, after eating the delicious and creative bruschetta offerings at other restaurants around town, Palazzo's was forgettable.
Panini were a rip-off at $9.50. Not that I won't pay that kind of money for a good sandwich. On the contrary, I've bought countless Pane Bianco sandwiches at eight or nine bucks apiece, but considering their extraordinarily high quality Chris Bianco's fresh-out-of-the-oven bread, homemade mozzarella, the best olive oil around I can justify the splurge. But if you're going to charge more than the master, you're setting me up for disappointment. That was the case here. We tried the somewhat bland verdura di stagione, with grilled red and yellow peppers, tomatoes, haricots verts, and goat cheese, as well as the tacchino e provolone, a turkey sandwich with white garlic cream sauce and provolone that was so awful we didn't even bother to finish it. The sauce was flavorless, and the turkey was actually a slab of heated-up cold cuts.
Perhaps the best thing I ate at Palazzo was the pollo e fagiolo verde wood-fired pizza, slices of herb-marinated chicken, haricots verts, garlic, and cream sauce topped with a five-cheese blend. My hungry friend who ordered the turkey panini was jealous, so I gave her a piece. She liked it. I didn't bother to pass along some of the fresh spinach topping, which was really sour, drenched in lemon juice. The granchio con formaggio pizza blue crab with melted havarti and a side of pepper-infused lemon juice was edible, too, but I was completely outraged at the price and portion. Fifteen bucks for a personal pizza the size of a small tortilla? The chicken pizza was $10, and even that was pushing it.
Service was slow it took 45 minutes for our main dishes to arrive on a day when one of my friends had only an hour for lunch. What gives? Palazzo opened three months ago, not yesterday. And we were the only people there at that point, aside from a group of folks who walked in on us, apparently to scout the location for an event. (Did this business have to be conducted right in the middle of lunch?)
On another occasion, we showed up for dinner before 9:30 on a Saturday night, and even though Palazzo's dinner hours are supposed to go until 10 p.m., we were turned away by a bouncer behind a velvet rope.
For students and city dwellers alike, I'd love to see a boom of downtown restaurants and nightclubs. But if they're anything like Palazzo, they shouldn't try to be both.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.