The Ital­ian job

Pasatiempo - - RESTAURANT REVIEW - Alex Heard I For The New Mex­i­can

This is a place that’s sin­cerely try­ing to be­come a de­pend­able neigh­bor­hood fa­vorite. You’ll pick up a good vibe.

My not-too-orig­i­nal rule of thumb about Ital­ian restau­rants is to look for small ones, since you have a bet­ter chance of find­ing ex­cel­lent in­gre­di­ents and fresh pasta at places that don’t crank out as much food as, say, an Olive Gar­den. By that stan­dard, Café Gra­zie looks promis­ing. It’s a quiet lit­tle spot squeezed into a faux-dobe com­mer­cial plaza on Za­farano Drive, in the mid­dle of the big-box shop­ping sa­van­nah that’s home to stores like Tar­get and Ross. Take a seat in the spare in­te­rior — there are just over a dozen ta­bles and booths, white-clothed and com­fort­able — and you’ll pick up a good vibe. This is a place that’s sin­cerely try­ing to be­come a de­pend­able neigh­bor­hood fa­vorite.

That starts with the ser­vice, which in­volves fre­quent (per­haps too much so for some, but I liked it) check-ins by your waiter and the res­tau­rant’s friendly host. There are slight vari­a­tions in the lunch and din­ner menus, but nei­ther is es­pe­cially large: The din­ner ver­sion of­fers sev­eral ap­pe­tiz­ers, sal­ads, pasta dishes, “grill” en­trees, and a few desserts. Most of the dishes are old stand­bys, in­clud­ing fried cala­mari, Cap­rese salad, linguine Al­fredo, meat lasagna, and tiramisu. There’s no beer and wine on of­fer, which could be based on a wise busi­ness de­ci­sion: If the res­tau­rant suc­ceeds, the al­co­hol li­cense can fol­low. I hope so, any­way — the food here is rich and heavy enough that I yearned for a glass of wine.

One down­side of small restau­rants is that, some­times, sup­port­ing-cast food like salad and bread will turn up on mul­ti­ple dishes, and that hap­pens here. For ex­am­ple, whether you or­der a starter salad or get an app or en­tree that has salad as part of the deal, chances are good you’ll see the same hand­ful of mixed greens ev­ery time, a dull med­ley that’s dif­fer­en­ti­ated only by the ad­di­tion of in­gre­di­ents like ji­cama, sliced car­rots, and tomato. You’ll also see quite a few pieces of “tostato” — toast made from wide slices of coarse Ital­ian bread, moist­ened with oil and sea­soned with gar­lic. It’s de­cent stuff, but al­ter­na­tives would be nice.

A loom­ing ques­tion in restau­rants like this is whether they’re mak­ing their own pasta. I can’t say, since I didn’t en­ter Café Gra­zie’s kitchen, but my guess would be that some of the pasta is cre­ated on site, some isn’t. With one en­tree we tried, por­to­bello mushroom ravi­oli, the pasta was ten­der enough that it seemed like the real made-from-scratch thing. But the rub­bery, crinkly noo­dles in an­other dish we tried, the veg­e­tar­ian lasagna, did not.

On a visit for din­ner, we started with two ap­peal­ing sal­ads: Cap­rese and goat cheese. Cap­rese is a clas­sic sum­mer­time combo. It’s not sum­mer in Santa Fe yet, so the toma­toes — wher­ever they hailed from — were too firm and not sweet enough. The moz­zarella was also a lit­tle stiff. You should be able to han­dle this salad with the side of a fork. This one re­quired saw­ing with a but­ter knife. The goat cheese salad was good, with a base of spinach in­stead of mixed greens, along with pine nuts, sun-dried toma­toes, fresh tomato, cu­cum­ber, bal­samic vine­gar, and a gar­licky sauce on top of a hunk of creamy, tasty goat cheese. For the main event, I tried the stuffed grilled chicken with po­lenta. The chicken was nice: three pieces of breast meat had been whapped flat, wrapped around spinach-cheese fill­ing, then seared. These were served with good sautéed veg­eta­bles (car­rots, zucchini, as­para­gus, and Brus­sels sprouts) and a big disc of po­lenta, though the lat­ter was over­cooked, al­most to the point of be­ing bready.

We tried a spicy, foamy chai tea latte (thumbs up) and the por­to­bello ravi­oli (thumbs side­ways). We liked the pasta but thought the mushroom fill­ing was skimpy and found the sage-flecked white sauce that cov­ered the whole thing a lit­tle thin and bland. We wrapped things up by shar­ing tiramisu and vanilla gelato with caramel sauce. The tiramisu was great — soft, moist, and rich. The gelato was all right, though the vanilla fla­vor was hard to de­tect.

Our lunch visit wasn’t as good over­all. We started with a house salad and a Mediter­ranean shrimp salad. They were es­sen­tially the same thing — the mixed greens starred in both — made dif­fer­ent by the ad­di­tion of five roasted, too-chewy shrimp. My din­ing com­pan­ion tried the linguine Al­fredo, which used that same bland white sauce. I had the veg­e­tar­ian lasagna, which was also a lit­tle bor­ing. The veg­eta­bles (spinach, zucchini, yel­low squash, onion) shed a lot of wa­ter. The red sauce be­tween lay­ers didn’t add enough tomato-and-herb depth to re­store much fla­vor.

But would I go back? Yep. Café Gra­zie isn’t hit­ting the mark ev­ery time, but they’ve got the right spirit. It’s worth watch­ing and wait­ing to see how this place de­vel­ops.

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