Cafe Reviews

Volare, Oh No!

For good or ill, it was Dean Martin who led me to Pronto Ristorante. Not that I mean Ol' Pink Eyes himself arose from his grave to guide me, drink and cigarette in hand, to this P-town pasta house. But he might as well. See, Santa was good to me this year and stuffed my stocking with the DVD Dean Martin: That's Amore, featuring a number of performances from the King of Cool's long-running, eponymously titled TV show. Just listening to the Italian baritone belt out the title track had me longing for an evening in Roma, or as close as I could come, here in this valley of sagebrush and saguaro: a place to make me sing vita bella, and cause my heart to play tippy-tippy-tay, like a gay tarantella.

Lucky fella, I just dialed up Brenda, the petite and lovely paramour of my dear friend Judge Jeffrey, a former prosecutor to whom his friends have affixed a jurist's title as an honorific. "Have you tried Pronto's yet?" asked the fair Brenda, and of course, being a neophyte Phoenician, I had not. But then Phoenix is filled with new booties, like moi. There are more transplants in this town than on William Shatner's head! So why not visit an establishment steeped in lore and see if reality matches the legend? With this thought in mind, we decided to, well, volare, oh-oh. That means, "to fly," paisano, capisce?

I was joined in my journey by not only Brenda and the good judge, but by Mikey, Brad and their pal Suzanne, none of whom ever met a free meal they didn't like. With this impecunious posse of skinflints in tow, I arrived at Pronto and was seated promptly, as I'd made reservations ahead of time. They can get busy on Fridays and Saturdays because of a dinner theater that operates in one room of the establishment, so I'd advise you to do the same if that's when you want to go.

Now before I describe the eatery's innards, there's something I have to get off my chest. Table service is one of those things you tend to take for granted unless it's subpar, and subpar it certainly was this night. Our waitress -- a crusty, middle-aged gal who's probably been there longer than some of the furniture -- huffed and puffed because our party was a large one. At one point I asked for water, which someone else seconded, so I simply said, "Water all around." Her retort was, "You have to tell me!" Jeez, Louise, I thought that's what I was doing. Another time, Mikey, who as most of you know loves his vodka, asked for that spirit on the rocks, to which she snapped, "Well, what kind? We have lots!" Mikey's ears turned redder than Jacko's lips, and it was all we could do to keep him from self-combusting right there in the restaurant.

One might assume that more than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, one need not explain how capitalism works. But perhaps this battle-ax needs a refresher course. Normally, I'd be inclined to ascribe her rudeness to that monthly call from Aunt Flo. But I returned on two other occasions to the restaurant, and received similar treatment. For example, though Pronto's closes at 10 p.m., she looked at her watch and grumbled when I arrived each time at 9:30 p.m. Her attentiveness to the dining needs of myself and my companion only seemed to improve when she witnessed me scribbling in my notebook. Not good enough, my dear. No one put a gun to your head and forced you to wait tables.

According to Vincenzo Vivolo, Pronto's genial, roly-poly proprietor, the ristorante's best days are in the past. "I'm known, but at that time [in the '80s], I was popular. I was doing business, and not a joke," he admitted recently in his mellifluous Italian accent. "Now people come more for events, for Christmas, or to celebrate birthdays. And I do have good customers. Before, there were not too many restaurants, and it was very popular. I had lines outside."

To borrow a couplet from the Immortal Bard: The fault, dear Vincenzo, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves. Even if the service were far better, Pronto's dishes are overpriced and too bland to win the stomachs of new clientele. Let's start with the bread served, which was flat and tasteless, and was, at least on one occasion, stale. My understanding is that it's not made on the premises. So they either need to acquire a new supplier posthaste, or begin making it themselves to see if they can improve on the quality.

Next comes the antipasto della casa, which at $7.95 for a small plate is probably one of the best examples of banditry since the Lufthansa heist: pickled cauliflower, artichokes, a couple of sliced tomatoes, olives and "Imported Italian meats" (which look and taste like luncheon fare) on a bed of cheap iceberg lettuce. Even with a few pieces of mozzarella and a couple of sun-dried tomatoes, this antipasto is an embarrassment, fit for the Olive Garden, at best. Can you imagine Tony Soprano eating this roughage? Fuhgeddaboutit!

One thing Pronto does hit the mark on is the calamari fritti, which I wouldn't change for all the pizza joints in Bensonhurst. The squid is tender and not the least bit rubbery, lightly fried, and topped with a simple yet delicious sauce of roasted garlic and tomatoes. For $9.95, they give you a good-sized bowl of it, and I dare say that if the bowl was a little bigger and accompanied by pasta, I could eat it as an entree. Would that had been the case because my veal scaloppine Marsala was amazingly mediocre, placed beside a small portion of fettuccine Alfredo so dull and flavorless I'm sure Chef Boyardee could surpass it. For $17.95, one expects a more appetizing effort, I'm afraid.

Down the line, a consistent insipidness purveyed nearly everything served to my party. From the veals piccata and parmigiana, to the pork loin with gnocchi and the linguini with white clam sauce, there was nothing inedible or outright vile. But neither was there anything that stood out as exceptional, other than the aforementioned calamari. My subsequent dinners were equally average. Once I ordered sausages con polenta, and asked that the polenta be replaced by spaghetti. With no explanation, I was given salsicci atop capellini, in a marinara sauce less compelling than Newman's Own. As for the sausages, despite having come from purportedly Italian porkers, they barely surpassed Jimmy Dean's links.

Dessert-wise, Pronto gets points for having a better vendor than for their pane. The cassata, hazelnut baba, and lemon-strawberry sorbetto were as good as anything you'd be served in Staten Island, and the tartuffo might have made Mussolini swoon, with its rich combination of chocolate-hazelnut gelato encrusted by hazelnuts and chocolate chips. Signore Vivolo asserts that Pronto can bake a mean rum cake, but says it's not on the menu because the restaurant doesn't often make it. Are they afraid they wouldn't receive enough orders? No, they simply find it too much trouble to prepare.

Pronto seems more than willing to rest on its long-withered laurels, and that's too bad, as I found both the restaurant's interior and its owner quite charming. Indeed, the former is uniquely decorated with antique musical instruments, framed reproductions, bronze figurines, and a symphony of backlit stained glass windows that outdoes just about every church in town. One particularly beautiful window of purple, orange and amber spheres so entranced me I wish I had one in my study. Ultimately, this is why patronizing Pronto's is more like popping by a small museum or stepping into a quaint curio dealership than fine dining. That would be tolerable if it were charging $3.50 a head for the tour, but the food sets you back quite a bit more, and you have to swallow it to boot. As Dino once crooned, "Oh, ain't that a kick in the head?"

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