The Italian Grille in Auburn was as confusing as it was enjoyable.
Nestled in the Plaza East shopping center near DeKalb Memorial Hospital, the place looked the part of a traditional Italian eatery with soft lighting and its predominantly black paint scheme. But it also had some things that screamed tacky, such as glossy posters promoting its 2 for $22 weekend special and huge laminated single-page, two-sided menus.
The menu seemed to have all the right things, however. In addition to pasta and pizza shop specialties, there were a variety of chicken and seafood dishes, and steaks that you could have prepared several ways.
But after trying something from every part of the menu, I had a hard time deciding what was best.
The classic Italian dishes all suffered from the same problem – blandness. The Italian Grilles marinara lacked any discernible flavor. My cavatappi from the create-your-own pasta section was fun to order as I was allowed to choose my sauce – marinara, alfredo, garlic butter or meat sauce – and pick from up to 12 additions for an additional charge.
I chose meat sauce, which also carried a $1.25 up-charge, and added Italian sausage ($2.25) and had it baked with mozzarella cheese ($1.25). My now $16.40 plate of pasta was highlighted by a plethora of thinly sliced sausage, which had a strong fennel flavor. It looked great with the bubbly, nicely browned cheese on top, and the hollow pasta was al dente, but I barely put a dente in it thanks to the bland sauce.
The meatballs and toasted bread appetizer also looked great with the same cheese enveloping big, plump, sauce-covered meatballs. The meatballs were OK although a bit mushy, and the crunchy toasted Italian garlic bread was a real plus as it added flavor where the sauce couldnt.
The penne rustica had the same tasty slices of sausage along with green peppers, onions and big white mushrooms in a chipotle marinara sauce. This sauce was still bland, only now it was a little hot from the chipotle.
I chose the tomato sauce over the original marinara for my cheese pizza at The Italian Grille. And this sauce did not lack flavor; it had too much of it. The layer on top of the rather mediocre doughy crust was way too sweet. Perhaps a combination of the two sauces would have solved the problem.
I had no problems with my steak and chicken offerings.
A special that combined the menu staple chicken limone – grilled chicken and sautéed mushrooms in a lemon butter sauce – with bruschetta was the most impressive entrée. The plump, juicy chicken breast picked up some added depth from its dark grill marks, the mushrooms added body to the slightly creamy, pretty-much-perfect lemon sauce, and the diced tomatoes, garlic and fresh basil from the bruschetta gave the dish a burst of freshness.
The flat iron steak was recommended by my server and was perfectly pink and juicy. I chose to have it wood-fired, but it didnt seem to take on any unique flavor from that cooking method. The black pepper-heavy steak rub used to season it, although enjoyable, probably didnt help.
My steak came with a side of pasta, and I chose fettuccini alfredo hoping it would be better than the marinara. But it wasnt. The alfredo was runny and pale with no herbs, black pepper or bits of garlic visible, and it tasted like it came from a jar.
Looking back, the first things and last thing I had at The Italian Grille were the best.
The complimentary French bread was soft, moist and piping hot with a salty seasoning sprinkled on top. It came with a little bowl of dried Italian herbs in the bottom to which my server added olive oil from a glass decanter on the table, creating a tasty dip. I asked for balsamic vinegar to add to mine, and it made the dip even more enjoyable.
The house salad was made with a nice blend of iceberg, romaine and spring mix, and was topped with diced tomato, red onion and a generous amount of crumbled bleu cheese. I also loved the tangy tomato-basil vinaigrette that was the restaurants house dressing.
The Italian wedding soup was textbook good, as was the minestrone, and the only thing both needed was a dash of parmesan.
My final taste of The Italian Grille was a cannoli with freshly made filling, which I chose over the from-the-freezer Cheesecake Factory offerings. The shell of this classic Italian dessert was flaky and had a nice cinnamon essence to it, and the creamy filling was fantastic thanks to a hint of orange zest joining chocolate chips in it.
The service was as hit-or-miss as everything else. When things were slow, the servers were prompt, courteous and attentive, but as soon as it got just a little busy, they went MIA and I found myself waiting.
Restaurant: The Italian Grille
Address: 227 N. Duesenberg Drive, Auburn
Hours: 4 to 10 p.m. Monday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday; 4 to 11 p.m. Saturday
Handicapped accessible: Yes, but a bit cramped
Alcohol: Full bar
Smoking status: Non-smoking
Credit cards: Yes
Menu: Meatballs ($4.99), soup ($3.25), flat iron steak ($15.75), penne rustica ($12.65)
* 1/2 (3-star maximum);
atmosphere: 1/2 (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).