Food & Drink » Restaurant Review

Pride of Place

Maldini's goes beyond the average red-sauce Italian.

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The walls at Maldini's aren't painted with trompe l'oeil street scenes from villages in the Southern Alps. The waitresses aren't dressed in short-skirted Italian versions of lederhosen (don't laugh — I worked in a place like this). And the music in the background isn't a loop of "That's Amore," but familiar American rock and bluegrass. What's Italian about Maldini's is the food.

Our first taste was a basket of fresh bread presented without fanfare but as graciously as a gift — "This is something we baked this morning" — and accompanied with a luxurious sun-dried tomato and olive oil sauce for dipping. From there the menu offered the flavorful and filling fare we expect from Italian. Good servers know that they perform a delicate balancing act — on the one hand, they work for their establishment; on the other, they work for tips from customers. The best servers will lead diners through the menu to what they really will enjoy. It's not rocket science, but it takes a little patience and the ability to empathize.

"Is the calamari great or just OK?" we wondered.

"It's good," the server said, with the telltale inflection and shoulder shrug.

"Aha. So, what's great?"

"The mussels."

She was right. The three dozen or so sweet black mussels came swimming in an aromatic bath of tomato, garlic and herbs. We soon had a pile of butterflied shells and broth-stained shirtsleeves to show for our efforts, and the meal was just beginning.

Shortly thereafter, our entrees, also recommendations from our friendly and knowledgeable server, arrived steaming hot and vividly garnished with fresh herbs. My wife tucked into her orecchiette alla ricotta, little ear-shaped pasta known for its ability to scoop up generous amounts of sauce. The long mmmmm she voiced said it all.

The dinner portions here are truly family style: Think aunts, uncles and cousins. After polishing off my plump and delicately sautéed chicken Marsala, I was happy to help Nicole with her rich, creamy ricotta and tomato bowl of comfort. But I needn't have. All entrees ($11.95-$15.95) come with a side of pasta marinara and a salad to round out the meal and the diner.

As for desserts, Maldini's supposedly offers the traditional tiramisu and cannoli, but I defy anyone getting through four preliminary courses to find out. Fahgeddaboudit. In my educated opinion, however, I'd bet they're fantastic, and I'll tell you why.

There are some simple things to look for when sizing up a real working-class joint. First, the open kitchen at Maldini's sports the most immaculately polished stainless steel I've ever seen, and I can tell you that is a daily chore that speaks of a deep sense of pride. Second, the server station at the back of the dining room was fully stocked with obsessively lined-up rows of ketchup bottles, Parmesan and red-pepper shakers. This might not seem like a big deal, but the same ownership that ensures that this is orderly and attractive also ensures that the chicken and fish are fresh and that the perishable stock is rotated regularly. And last and most important, the slices of turkey on the turkey sub are folded back on themselves to create a little extra lift and a little bit better texture. Each plate that leaves the kitchen is as important as every other; it's all going into someone's mouth and had better be good and fresh and tasty.

It's that kind of attention to detail that made me comfortable choosing carbonara, a dish that includes nearly raw egg yolks. And just like everything else I sampled here, it was straight-up gold-medal. If I knew Italy's national anthem, I'd be humming it now. S



Maldini's ($)
4811 Forest Hill Ave.
230-9055, 230-2573
Monday-Thursday: 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Sunday: Noon-10 p.m.

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