Alex Fiato shuffles through the main dining room of his Taylor Street restaurant with regularity, even on busy nights.
He personally brings food to his customers, and you know he takes a lot of pride in what he does as he smiles and tells how beautiful the shrimp turned out in your Shrimp Flamingo.
Alex is the heart and soul of the Italian Connection and has been for more than 30 years. It is a family business, and his family is reflected in the décor as family photos adorn every wall. His son, Rocco, stood next to one of his baby pictures as he took my order, and you could tell he has the same sense of pride as his father.
It is not overly formal, but it does feel special, kind of like you are eating in somebody’s home.
It is dark and subdued, and has kitschy details like a Virgin Mary shrine, autographed wine bottles lining the walls and a trellis entwined with artificial vines.
The eatery, and its owner for that matter, fit the stereotypes for an Italian restaurant and an Italian chef perfectly, and that kind of makes the experience seem even more special. And if you are lucky and it is slow enough, Alex might fire up his karaoke machine to do his best Sinatra, singing New York, New York. If you are even luckier, Rocco might take the mike, too, belting out Summer Wind, and he’ll do it better than his old man. Neither is ready for Broadway by any means, but their efforts make an already-charming experience even better.
Alex takes a hands-on approach with the food. He makes his pasta from scratch, a rarity these days. That Shrimp Flamingo featured shrimp that were, indeed, beautiful that night in a surprisingly light brandied cream sauce, which enveloped succulent homemade pasta.
The Alfredo sauce on the Fettuccini Antonio was much heavier and richer, and it worked harmoniously with the salty, chewy pancetta and prosciutto that separated the Antonio from regular Alfredo. The star of the dish, however, was still the silky, perfectly al dente fettuccini.
Not all of Alex’s pasta found favor, however.
His potato-based cavatelli was hard, chewy and grossly undercooked. I was also troubled by the linguine side that accompanied the Veal Alesandro. Much of the pasta stuck together, and there was one giant clump in the middle of the small bowl that was inedible.
The Alesandro featured medallions of veal lightly breaded and pan-sautéed in a lemon-butter sauce. The veal was tender, slightly fatty and delicious, and the hint of lemon gave a light edge to the browned breading, but I would have liked a little more sauce on the plate as it was quite dry.
The chicken parmesan was not the normal breaded chicken topped with marinara and bubbly, melted cheese. This version was small chicken tenders breaded like the veal and sautéed in olive oil before being topped with the same lemon-butter sauce and grated Italian cheeses. Each fingerling had a generous amount of cheese coating it, and they were juicy and flavorful, but, again, there was no sauce on the plate and little of its flavor evident.
The lasagna also disappointed. The layers of pasta were compressed together with little seasoned ground beef or cheese between each. It was hard to detect any velvety ricotta or other cheese, and the dish was more or less a brick of pasta with a little sauce coating it. The marinara sauce was also somewhat bland and forgettable on everything I had it on.
I was also taken aback by the poor quality of the meatballs. The bottom half of every one I tried during both visits was hard, rubbery and overcooked to the point of almost being charred.
The hot artichoke appetizer, thankfully, made me forget the meatballs. A thick layer of gooey, melted cheese covered this dish of olive oil-coated artichoke hearts seasoned with red pepper flakes and other herbs. It was a great topping for the complimentary bread.
Although I enjoyed seeing Alex out in the dining room hobnobbing with customers and flashing his smile, it bothered me a bit to see him removing dirty dishes from a table one minute and returning with my prepared food the next. It disgusted me to watch him grab the two remaining pieces of bread out of my basket with his bare hand and throw them on top of the fresh slices he brought in a new basket.
Another service flaw occurred as my party wound down toward dessert one night. A man sporting a smock and a baseball cap reached in front of me across my table, grabbed a shaker of grated parmesan and said, I just need this cheese before darting away.
An excuse me should have been in there somewhere, and it would have been nice if he had asked whether we were finished with it first.
Dessert did end things on a high note, highlighted by the as-good-as-it-gets, from-scratch cannoli. The sweet, creamy green filling is flavored with pistachio paste and the crisp, savory shells are light and flaky. I also enjoyed the zabaglione – a tiny dessert dish filled with creamy, cinnamon-spiked custard that was gooey, soupy and delicious.
My visits to the Italian Connection left me feeling a bit disconnected.
It has a warm, friendly atmosphere, and dining there is fun without a doubt. The food, however, did not have me wanting to grab the microphone and join Alex in a duet of Fly Me to the Moon.
Restaurant: Italian Connection
Address: 2725 Taylor St.
Hours: 5 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 5 to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Handicapped accessible: No; front entryway too narrow and dining room crowded
Alcohol served: Beer and wine
Credit cards accepted: Yes
Menu: Fried meatballs ($4); hot artichoke appetizer ($5), lasagna ($11), cavatelli ($9), Fettuccini Antonio ($12), chicken parmesan ($14), Veal Alesandro ($16), Shrimp Flamingo ($14), cannoli ($3), zabaglione ($4)
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).