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The RittenHouse

Out of a possible five
Dining Out

Italian-style stylings are on House

He is a striking figure in the dining room – this tall, slender man with his gray moustache and long, wavy hair pulled back into a ponytail.

His strong Argentine accent drowns out the murmur from the customers and the classical music in the background. He is as much a salesman as chef, and even though he has only been at the RittenHouse for a few months, Hector Minon has already made it his own.

Minon trained as a chef in Argentina before finding his way to San Diego and now to his wife’s home of Bluffton. But his menu is Italian thanks to the strong influence of his Sicilian grandmothers. So the RittenHouse is very much an Italian restaurant, which is something new for the Bluffton landmark, which was built in 1902 and still has its classic, Victorian looks.

Minon is making most everything from scratch, from the mini loaves of crusty, delicious bread to a signature, award-winning dessert that is as unique as it is delightful.

“I open the door and tell the calories leave,” he says to a customer, teasing them into trying this dessert, which he claims has won more than 20 awards.

“I want to watch you take the first bite to see the look on your face,” he says as he serves it. “I want you to be the judge.”

Minon’s avocado-lime pie was award-winning good. He got the idea while working in California’s avocado country and won his first award with it at an avocado festival.

The avocado adds richness and body that normal key lime pie lacks, as well as the wonderful creaminess that is the best part of a fresh, succulent avocado. The savory flavor of the fruit hits the palate first and lingers after each bite with the sweetness and tartness of the limes filling the gap. Topped with a small dollop of whipped cream and plated beautifully on a confectioner’s sugar-covered dish with dots of Minon’s yummy raspberry cognac sauce and a bit of chocolate syrup, it was so good I wanted to lick the plate clean.

Minon’s marinara sauce was also worthy of plate-licking. A chunky red sauce with plenty of herbs, it was rich and hearty, and you could taste the chardonnay he uses in each bite. It was great in the simple spaghetti with a couple of big, surprisingly moist and soft meatballs, or as a garnish to the ravioli fritti appetizer. Minon uses a three-cheese blend in these big, round hand-stuffed beauties, which were fried crisp and not at all oily.

The most rustic and satisfying Italian dish did not incorporate the marinara, however. The spaghetti cabonara a la Dianne, named for its creator (who happens to be the chef’s wife), featured al dente noodles with imported pancetta, a generous amount of fresh garlic, fresh parsley and parmesan. In keeping with the traditional preparation, Minon also uses egg, which envelops each strand of pasta, making each bite velvety and delectable.

The alfredo sauce coated each noodle without being heavy in the fettuccini primavera. It had an array of fresh vegetables – crispness from the broccoli and sweetness from peas and carrots – which counteracted the heavy cream and parmesan.

Minon did show his Argentine side with a traditional dish he just recently added to the menu – the churrasco a la Argentina. He perfectly grills flank steak that is charred outside while still pink, juicy and tender inside, and accents it with his chimichurri sauce made of fresh parsley, garlic, salt, pepper and red pepper flakes. This blended condiment is rather timid and just adds a bit of fresh herb flavor to the hearty beef. Minon suggested getting fries with the steak, which are the common partner for it back home, he said. The thin hand-cut potatoes were twice fried to be extra crisp and would be nearly impossible to improve upon.

The only thing that needed improving at the RittenHouse was the service. It was prompt and courteous, which is the most important part, but one of my servers struggled with questions and seemed not to know the menu.

Even though the lineup of desserts was written on her order pad, she still confused bread pudding with banana pudding after earlier confusing corn chowder for clam chowder.

As thrilled as I was when an employee arrived tableside with a block of fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and a grater to garnish my pasta, I was just as disappointed the next visit when it was not offered.

With a new chef who is constantly changing the menu to emphasize the fresh ingredients he wants to use in his homemade delights, the staff may never truly know the menu.

But, then again, maybe they don’t need to. Because the way Minon’s face lights up when he talks about his food, his family and, of course, his cherished avocado-lime pie, it would be a shame if he didn’t have to visit every table.

Restaurant: The RittenHouse

Address: 218 S. Main St., Bluffton

Phone: 260-824-8112

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 4 to 9 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday brunch

Cuisine: Italian

Handicapped accessible: Yes, but restrooms upstairs

Alcohol served: Full bar

Credit cards accepted: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes, but no children’s menu

Menu: Ravioli fritti ($4.95), Argentine skirt steak ($18.95), spaghetti and meatballs ($6.95), spaghetti cabonara ($10.95), fettuccini primavera ($7.95), avocado lime pie ($4.95)

Rating breakdown: Food *** (3 star maximum); atmosphere * (1 maximum), service 1/2 (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. E-mail him at rduvall@jg.net, call at 461-8130, or go to the “Dining out” topic of “The Board” at www.journalgazette.net. DuVall’s past reviews can also be found at the Web site, and you can hear Ryan every from 5 to 6 p.m. Thursday on 92.3 FM, The Fort.