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Thursday, June 23,2011

Classic Italian in Lafayette

By Clay Fong
photo by Sue France

 

As someone with too much time on my hands, I’ve recently been preoccupied with seeking out classic, if not downright iconic, meals. These repasts don’t necessarily have to be pricey or complex, and can be as simple as a grilled cheese accompanied by tomato soup. Another might be a Paris bistro meal of onion soup, a dozen raw oysters, and floating island meringue for dessert. Not included in this category would be friend Cynthia’s impromptu dinners where a box of Red Hots or Lemonheads served as the entrée.

Fortunately, boxes of candy aren’t on the menu at Lafayette’s Zamparelli’s Italian Bistro. Despite Cynthia’s propensity towards confectionery as entrees, she had decided to join me for dinner at this vibrant, family-friendly eatery, which seemed ideal for an archetypical Italian-American meal. The menu features antipasti, salads and standby sandwiches such as sausage and peppers and eggplant parmesan. There’s also plenty of pasta, ranging from basic spaghettini with marinara to pesto and meaty Bolognese-sauced selections. Brick oven pizzas span the range from basic pepperoni to pesto shrimp.

Cynthia ordered a refreshing bottle of Lambrusco, marked down to $14.50 as part of a Monday night half-off bottles of wine special. This helped wash down a $4.75 cheesy garlic bread starter, something I anticipated ordering as part of my textbook dinner. This appetizer featured a tender — as opposed to rubbery — topping of lightly browned cheese and packed a garlicky punch, which is how I like it.

This formidable starter could have made for a light meal with the house salad ($2.50 with pasta entrée) of romaine, cucumber and grape tomato. Far from fancy, this cold and crisp salad still hit the spot, reminding me of the family-style Italian restaurants of my youth. The richness of the creamy gorgonzola dressing and a dash of black pepper helped the simple salad ingredients seem more luxurious than they were.

Cynthia’s entrée was the $15 chicken marsala, served atop silky, wide pappardelle noodles. The ample quantity of mushrooms made Cynthia happy, although she wished for a dab more of the included mustard and soft mascarpone cheese to give the pasta some gloss. Otherwise, the flavor of the poultry balanced well with the subtly sweet wine, which was in turn bolstered by the mushrooms’ pleasing earthiness and the pasta’s considerable heft.

My iconic meal continued unabated with a $13 plate of spaghettini topped with bright red marinara and meatballs. A carnivore’s delight, these mixed-meat meatballs weren’t overcooked like most, and were nearly tennis ball-sized. The sauce carried a hint of herbal flavor, which accented the understated sweetness of tomato, and didn’t overwhelm the creamy tones of the meatballs. The skinny pasta was the correct al dente consistency.

We ended with a $4 cannoli, the pastry-wrapped sweet cheese confection, dusted with powdered sugar and flavored with cinnamon. Imported from New York City, this dessert was too sweet for my friend’s taste, although the fried dough wrapper was nice and flaky, which isn’t always the case.

Truly good Italian-American cooking is surprisingly hard to find locally. That’s a shame, because many may crave the simple comforts of garlic bread, an unfussy salad, pasta and a classic Italian sweet. Fortunately, Zamparelli’s understands that just offering these classic dishes isn’t enough — the most satisfying versions require care worthy of their iconic status.

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