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.