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** 1/2
Out of a possible five

Italian fare lackluster at Ziano’s

It may seem like a bit of a daring move, but the owners of Ziano’s Italian Eatery were apparently not intimidated by the big red Fazoli’s logo on the building next door.

The restaurant, nestled in a strip mall next to the chain on Covington Road, is more upscale than its neighbor, but not too upscale; it’s more of a casual sit-down type of place.

It has a quaint, pleasing atmosphere with black furniture, tablecloths and carpet, and an attractive tiered ceiling with red accents highlighting the edges of those tiers from the neutral, earth-tone walls. There are also a few Italian photos, a bright mural of a gondola on one wall and a shield embossed with “Italy” on another.

But as different as it seems in looks, Ziano’s seemed to be trying its best to cut in on some of Fazoli’s’ success when it came to one signature item: breadsticks.

You can’t get as many as you want at Ziano’s as you can next door, but you can get a basket of five plump, crusty, doughy, delicious sticks that blow away the competition’s for just 99 cents. Dusted with Parmesan and parsley, they didn’t arrive as fast as they do next door, but that is because they are baked fresh. And there is no doubt they are worth the wait.

As I munched on those sticks and my small house salad – impressive with a fresh-tasting Italian dressing that really burst with flavor, with plenty of red pepper, tomato, onion and shredded Parmesan – I started doing some quick math. I could make a fantastic lunch out of a salad ($1.95) and a basket of breadsticks for less than $3. And if I wanted a boat of sauce to dip those sticks in, I would still be under $5.

The sauce I tried, alfredo, was runny and almost watery. The flavor was OK, but I knew after trying it on the breadsticks that I would not be having the fettuccini alfredo anytime soon.

I really enjoyed the mozzi sticks, also. The same great breadsticks were stuffed from end to end with mozzarella cheese, which, of course, made them even better, but their salty price of $7.95 made them hard to swallow.

The zesty shrimp marinara was just as disappointing. A big boat filled with an orange sauce, which, like the alfredo, was loose and watery, was flanked by eight half-slices of chewy toasted ciabatta bread. I don’t know why I needed eight pieces because there were only six rubbery, overcooked, average-sized shrimp in the sauce, which was not at all zesty or flavorful, and definitely not worth sopping up with the remaining bread.

I had a bigger issue with the portion when it came to my meatball sandwich. The ciabatta roll held just six slices of meat, which, when reassembled, came to two big meatballs. I would expect at least twice that many, and would really like to see probably two more than that.

The nightly special, chicken marsala, featured a lightly dredged and pan-fried breast that was nice and brown, plenty moist and respectable, but it suffered from a timid sauce. It didn’t have the signature savory, semisweet wine flavor marsala usually gives it. It was not necessarily bad; it just wasn’t good marsala.

I also struggled to find much flavor in the meat sauce with the baked mostaccioli. The somewhat chunky sauce just didn’t have any of the attributes a good sauce should have. There was no robustness, no hint of herbs and no subtle sweetness. It was very one-note, and, again, not really bad, just not that good.

It should come as no surprise that the best dish had no sauce at all. The tilapia florentine was baked in a white wine sauce with spinach and sun-dried tomatoes and was served next to angel hair pasta tossed in that sauce.

The fish was light, flaky and super-moist, and the wine really permeated the fish and pasta with a fresh flavor that really awakened my palate. The tomatoes added a robust, almost earthy flavor that rounded the dish out perfectly.

Ziano’s’ pizza was also favorable. My sausage pie featured a crust that was crisp on the bottom but soft and chewy on top, kind of like those breadsticks. The sausage was a sweet Italian variety that paired perfectly with Parmesan and spices that dusted the top of the nicely browned pizza.

The chocolate chip cookie was the dessert to have. Ziano’s places cookie dough in the bottom of a round cake pan, bakes it and serves it hot and gooey topped with vanilla ice cream and a mound of whipped cream drizzled with chocolate syrup. Nothing is better than a fresh-baked chocolate chip cookie except a fresh-baked cookie topped with ice cream and syrup.

Chocolate syrup ruined the cannoli, however. These two premade pastries had a hard, crunchy shell that was kind of like a biscotti and were filled with sweet ricotta, but I couldn’t really taste that ricotta or anything it was flavored with because both cannolis were smothered in chocolate. The syrup puddled up on the plate and covered three-fourths of the shells. The tiramisu was a better bet, but was mediocre at best.

My experiences at Ziano’s were mediocre, overall. Although the service was solid and the atmosphere was pleasant, the food failed to impress.

It was better than the fast-food place next door, but not better than some of the other Italian options out there.

Restaurant: Ziano’s Italian Eatery

Address: 5907 Covington Road

Phone: 444-4348

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Cuisine: Italian

Handicapped accessible: Yes, but seating could be limited as aisles are quite tight

Alcohol served: Beer and wine

Credit cards accepted: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: Zesty shrimp marinara ($6.95), baked mostaccioli ($7.99), tilapia florentine ($10.95), meatball sandwich ($7.95), one-topping pizza (10-inch $6.44; 14-inch $9.70), chocolate chip cookie ($4.95), tiramisu ($3.95), cannoli ($3.95)

Rating breakdown: Food: 1 (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1 (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 Thursday from 5 to 6 p.m. on 92.3 FM, The Fort.