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Pasta la Vista

Light motifs: You'll find competing themes of ambiance at Rustico.
Erik Guzowski

When Rustico first opened in 1998, the restaurant was under the direction of Maria Ranieri, chef-owner of the always excellent Maria's When in Naples. Unfortunately, this meatball fell far from the spaghetti tree. Rustico was panned by critics as boring, then ignored by diners. The eatery never took off.

Last September, new owners stepped in and in a bold move purchased not only the furnishings but the name. Perhaps they were trying to save money on signage or to protect liquor permits. They promised to bring new excitement and a "second-to-none" experience. Yet how likely was it that the fickle dining public would figure out the change and give Rustico a second chance? I wouldn't have bet on it.

Then again, with the recent completion of the Pima Freeway, floods of cars now drive past Rustico's doorstep, each vehicle containing at least one hungry mouth and stuffed wallet. Lots of people are stopping in, it seems, given the fairly busy lunch and dinner hours, even in the summer.

Are the crowds, however, coming for the food or out of convenience? The new Rustico is better than its predecessor. Unfortunately, not by much. There are competing themes of ambiance at work here, dishes are wildly inconsistent, and the service is too unpolished to put this place in league with the big boys. For the most part, Rustico remains yet another mid-level, overpriced Italian restaurant.

Rustico is a casual lunch spot: witness the weekday all-you-can-eat buffet, served out of chafing dishes. It's also an upper-end dinner house -- osso buco for a staggering $29.95, filet mignon with mushrooms, marsala sauce and goat cheese for $22.50, veal chop for $28.95, and cioppino with salmon, scallops, shrimp, mussels and clams for $21.95. It's got a full bar, but a bartender who can't be bothered to mix drinks. And it's staffed by servers who have to be repeatedly reminded that we want fresh silverware for each course (elegant dining doesn't mean dumping dirty forks off our plates onto the tablecloth).

Primarily, the place is frustrating. Because what Rustico does well, it does very, very well. So when things go wrong, it's all the more disappointing.

The setting sure works. Folks who've dined at Maria's will feel right at home with the charming look of an Italian village. Earthy brick and golden-toned walls frame huge, lush murals under a ceiling adorned with rough beams and ornate chandeliers. An "expedited" kitchen (I think the menu means to read "exhibition") showcases a wood-burning fireplace, although pizzas were removed from the menu earlier this year. Tables are covered with white cloth, chairs are carved wood and giant wine bottles are perched all about.

Things get off to an excellent start with warm, fresh bread crusted with salty cheese. A side of olive oil accompanies, along with a dish of garlic butter, a welcome touch in a town obsessed with a strict oil-and-balsamic-vinegar presentation. A loaf of this bread, some wine, and who cares about Thou.

And I'm still having flashbacks to an outrageously sexy appetizer of seared mushrooms. Each decadent cap is as good as the first, releasing rich juices when bitten, then surrendering a hidden core of shrimp and herbs. But what makes this dish swoon-worthy is the sauce, a dreamy, creamy garlic and fresh herb concoction that's so alluring my dinner companions abandon all good manners and grab from each corner of the table to sop every last drop with bread chunks.

Baked clams do their job in comfortable form, as well, the mound of mini mollusks satisfying with a thick jacket of oregano-infused bread crumbs, Parmesan and fresh herbs. Too bad interest disappears after a near tooth-cracking run-in with shell grit. A heaping plate of spinach salad does better, tossed with fresh spinach, Gorgonzola cheese, walnuts and croutons with a bacon dressing that could be less sweet.

While it's more ungainly than elegant, bruschetta keeps us pleasantly busy. This isn't the traditional dainty toast sprinkled with finely chopped tomato, basil and olive oil, but almost a meal, the four hefty wedges groaning under cubed tomato, roasted red pepper, mozzarella, chopped olive and dustings of Parmesan. And what's this? Cucumbers round out the plate. The complicated plate isn't bad, just unexpected for all its extras.

Add-ons emerge as a theme at Rustico, dampening the fine-dining ambiance. Classic caesar salad doesn't need to be sidelined by tomato wedges, lemon and cucumber slices. Not when the simple romaine, asiago cheese, croutons and silky dressing are this competently done. Too much garnish becomes salad-bar tacky. The antipasto, already a kitchen-sink operation, dissolves into a mess, done in by more pizza-parlor-appropriate cherry and sport peppers. Oil-soaked slabs of salami and provolone are cut so thick they overpower the gentler spring greens, marinated artichoke, red pepper and olives in what's no better than institutional Italian dressing.  

All this on our plates but we can't get a pre-dinner cocktail, our waitress reports. The bartender, playing to a house of perhaps a dozen guests, is too busy to take two liquid ingredients and pour them into a glass of ice. Incredible.

Just as mind-blowing, but in an entirely opposite way, is Rustico's pasta fagioli. Such a magical medley of white beans, tiny tube noodles, chickpeas, tomato, spinach and asiago in beef broth. It's not the traditional mélange, but highly effective with its deep, earthy character. And while I miss the crock container presentation on country onion soup (part of the joy of this dish is curling back the meaty, edge-to-edge coverlet of hot baked mozzarella to release the fragrant broth within), innards of sweet onion, ample salty liquid and a raft of focaccia make for a gratifying whole. More broth would boost a daily special of old-fashioned chicken soup, making it a marvel of an already fine composition of poultry shards, carrots, celery, onion, potatoes, croutons and asiago slivers.

Rustico's real strength is in its pasta, or technically, its sauces. Unbelievably, the pastas aren't homemade here but are so gloriously anointed that after a few bites I don't really care. A heaping plate of farfalle (bow-tie pasta) brims with chicken breast and sliced sausage, dressed with robust fresh tomato chunks, lots of garlic cloves and nicely chewy whole-leaf herbs. Tortellini carbonara breaks through, flaunting dense, cheesy twists tumbled with chiclet-size bits of smoky pancetta, prosciutto and onions in a cheesy cream sauce. Meanwhile, an indulgently priced pasta Portofino ($21.50) delivers value in size and taste, heaping mounds of shrimp, scallops, calamari, clams and mussels in a plate-licking lusty cream sauce. Even plain old pasta marinara, served as a side to luncheon sandwiches, excels thanks to fresh ingredients and an intelligent hand with herbs.

So why my lackluster response to meat, poultry and seafood entrees? Simply put, the kitchen seems more concerned with delivering quantity than quality. The plates are massive and so heavily laden they appear crass rather than classy.

Even with effort, I barely make a dent in the veal anina, an elephantine arrangement of pounded calf layered with proscuitto and breaded eggplant under a mantle of asiago. Why bother? The veal is so tough that parts are unchewable. The eggplant is bitter and the prosciutto comes ringed with enough fat to make it look like ham plucked from a zebra. And the sides -- served with every dish here -- including the steamed broccoli, carrot and cauliflower, plus potato chunks in cheese, are likable but hardly imaginative.

Where's the thrill in chicken rosinni, two breast pieces stuffed with mozzarella, prosciutto and oregano crumbs? It's okay but not great, finished in a heavy dose of shallots, mushrooms and demi-glace. Veal Parmesan, meanwhile, could have come off any $10 menu in town, except that this model sets us back $18.95. The scaloppini is average, with the best thing on the plate being the ocean of zesty marinara thick with Romano and mozzarella. And chicken francese fails to ignite any sparks, bringing lemony chicken breast in a light egg batter with a timid lemon butter, white wine and herb sauce. Yes, entrees include a superior green salad, large and stocked with enough vegetables to be a virtual salad bar, or a full bowl of soup. And there is that bread. Even so, this stuff costs too much.

Yet just when we're determined that anything other than pasta puts us to sleep, the kitchen sends out gorgeous grilled swordfish. This is one proud fish, meaty and moist, and finished with a Chablis and herb sauce that sings with lots of caper and lemon. It's pretty, in generous but manageable portions. Why can't the kitchen lend such skill to the rest of the menu?

Prices remain upscale ambitious at lunch. Beyond the $7.95 buffet, most dishes command a financial commitment. A satisfying but simple fettuccine Alfredo demands $8.50, plus $2 if we want soup or salad, plus $3 if we want shrimp or chicken. And the buffet tends to be boring -- take, for example, one day's offering of salad, chicken marsala, garlic mashed potatoes, vegetables and pasta.

There are better sandwiches all over town. Sliced sausage sits on a soft roll, bedecked with red and green peppers, marinara and mozzarella, but it doesn't do anything for me. And the same applies to the caprese Parmesan, an uptown name for a meatball sub. The little orbs are generic, nondescript in a cap of marinara, mozzarella and Parmesan.

Then, the desserts have us doing a double take once again. Our waitress describes a confection as spice cake, but it's really mousse and it's marvelous. The creamy round bursts with chocolate and ginger, rimmed in cocoa. Tiramisu, too, is one of the best I've found, densely layered, edged in chocolate sprinkles and crisscrossed with cocoa.  

Rustico's a head scratcher. If the kitchen could guarantee that all of its dishes arrived as beautifully as its best, the eatery would make an impact. Or, if it lowered its prices, its mistakes could be overlooked. Buca di Beppo, after all, is doing gangbusters with its mid-quality, but enormously portioned inexpensive Italian food.

Rustico has had a first chance. And a second. Perhaps a third time could be the charm.


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