With something like 20 restaurants now in Little Italy, it's hard to make much of an impact when you open a new one. People eat in this neighborhood because of its reputation for good, moderately priced, family-run restaurants. They usually don't want exotic dishes; they go for the traditional pasta dishes, the fried calamari, the veal scaloppine, the scampi.
The owner of the newly opened Aldo's has wisely, at least in the business sense, decided to offer traditional southern Italian home cooking. But having done that, Aldo Vitale had to figure out how to differentiate his restaurant from all those other restaurants that offer traditional southern Italian home cooking.
He's done it in two ways. First, he's tried to create the most beautiful restaurant in Little Italy. Second, he offers free valet parking. It's hard to say which will draw more customers, given the parking situation.
Aldo's is one very pretty restaurant, though. I'm not saying you'll want to decorate your living room this way, but you have to admire the cream and cappuccino facade with its decorative columns. And you have to admire what lies behind it. You enter through an etched-glass doorway to a fin de siecle bar - potted palm and all - then walk back to a center hallway with a dining room on either side. A simple vase of lush, peach-colored roses at the maitre d's station sets the tone. The dining rooms have windows opening onto the central corridor, which gives the restaurant a very pleasant indoor-outdoor feeling.
With its graceful decor and tuxedoed waiters, Aldo's could be one of Little Italy's more formal restaurants - except that people come dressed quite casually, as they usually do when they eat in this neighborhood. Still, the service is excellent here, befitting a more "serious" restaurant; the staff is attentive and friendly without being presumptuous. And because our waiter handled a spilled glass of red wine so beautifully (he simply moved us to another table without making anyone feel guilty), I give them an extra half-star for service.
Notice how long it's taken me to get to the food? With so much else going for Aldo's, the kitchen needs to get up to speed. What was good about our meal was very, very good. Sadly, what went wrong could easily have been avoided.
Take the tenderloin tips in a dark, flavorful red-wine sauce. The dish came from the kitchen stone cold. I'm presuming it sat and waited while the other entrees were being finished.
What could have been a delicious veal scaloppine with sauteed peppers and wild mushrooms suffered because the winey sauce hadn't been simmered long enough to get rid of the raw taste of alcohol.
A beautiful fruitti di mare posillipo had a noteworthy tomato sauce, bright and fresh, and the shellfish were nestled on good pasta. But the star of the dish, the lobster chunks, tasted chewy and a bit dry.
The best of our main courses was the most modest, ear-shaped orecchiette pasta. It was tossed with pleasantly bitter broccoli rabe and mild Italian sausage sauteed in good, garlicky olive oil.
In fact, all the pasta was excellent. The one of us who had the cold tenderloin tips devoured her side dish of penne with its light, fresh tomato sauce and grated Parmesan.
First courses, too, made us happy: golden fried calamari; fat, garlicky shrimp sauteed in butter; a fresh-tasting plate of sauteed red, green and yellow peppers; a tangy arugula salad with balsamic vinaigrette. Also worthy of note was Aldo's excellent bread.
So we started well, and we would have ended well if we had all ordered the cannoli. It was a particularly good version of an old standard, with a thin, crisp shell and a creamy, just-sweet-enough ricotta filling. Alas, a lemon curd tart and a mille-feuille pastry, both of which could have been wonderful, tasted a bit long in the tooth.
Where: 306 S. High St.
Hours: Open every night for dinner
Prices: Appetizers, $7.50-$9.50; entrees, $14-$29; major credit cards
Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair: **; Poor: *
Pub Date: 5/10/98