55 W. 100 South, Salt Lake City ; 801-364-8833
Downtown veteran could pare down its Italian menu in order execute flawless dishes. Reasonably priced wine list.
Hours: M-Th, 11:30 am-4 pm; 5-9 pm; F-S, 11:30 am-10 pm; Su, 10:30 am-2p; 5-9p
Liquor: Full Service
Corkage: $ 10
Recommended Dishes: Mushrooms appetizer, lasagna, pollo alla gratella, filet al verde, bistecca, coffee gelato, chocolate decadence cake.
December 12, 2006
Overstuffed menu hurts Caffè Molise
By Lesli J. Neilson
Years ago, a friend introduced me to Caffè Molise, named for the Italian region where the owner's grandmother was born. My friend lunched there several times a week and always ordered the polenta with marinara or angel hair pasta with red sauce.
Thirteen years have passed and the restaurant still serves that polenta and substitutes spaghettini for angel hair. My friend is just as ebullient today about Molise's food as she was back then. So, it seemed a fitting place to celebrate her recent birthday dinner. While the kitchen has mastered those dishes, many others -- perhaps because of the large volume of menu items -- suffer in one way or another.
The dinner menu comprises eight appetizers, two salads, seven entrees and eight pastas. Lunch differs from dinner slightly and adds panini to its lineup. Appetizer prices at dinner -- from $5.95 to $13.95 -- seem a bit steep, unless the pricing is aimed at diners who make a meal out of a starter and salad rather than appetizer, entree and maybe dessert. Entrees and pastas come with a simple, balanced and well-dressed mixed green salad.
To begin with starters, four large, plump polenta triangles come in three incarnations: with fresh tomato basil sauce ($5.95); spicy sausage, roasted peppers, onions, provolone and marinara sauce ($8.95); and, my favorite, mushrooms -- oyster, shiitake and cremini -- Gorgonzola, marinara sauce and caramelized onions ($9.95). The tanginess of the cheese married perfectly with the sweet onions.
Two of the appetizers didn't work. Gamberi spezia ($13.95) were six nicely cooked, spicy shrimp encircling mixed greens and, curiously, a mango chutney. Bruschetta mista ($8.95), garlic-rubbed toasted bread came with three accompaniments: overly garlicky, under salted white bean puree; insipid sauteed spinach; and tasteless, out-of-season diced tomatoes that had no place on a plate in winter.
Another appetizer, agli e pomodori ($5.95), is not for the timid. Loose garlic cloves and tangy sun-dried tomato strips floating in olive oil arrive in a piping hot skillet with toasted bread slices alongside. The caramelized garlic is actually quite sweet. A word of warning: You will have garlic breath in the morning.
Whole cloves of garlic also make their way into the penne di caprino ($15.95) where ridged pasta is tossed with marinated artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes and gobs of melted goat cheese. Lasagna ($13.95) was a huge square of layered noodles, sausage, beef, ricotta and asiago cheeses and a chunky marinara sauce containing large squares of onions and whole garlic cloves; it was enough for two meals.
The descriptor "spicy" on the menu didn't prepare us for a seriously zippy and incohesive orecchiette al salsiccia ($15.95). Though the pasta ears commingled with spicy sausage coins, oyster, shiitake and cremini mushrooms, onions and tomatoes, there was not enough sauce to unify the dish.
But the weakest pasta I tasted was the gamberi alla puttanesca ($18.95), usually a dish with some gusto. Molise's bell pepper sauce with capers, fresh herbs and tomatoes was in no way reminiscent of the robust sauce I'm used to, which is made with tomatoes, onions, garlic, chili peppers, capers, olives, anchovies and oregano.
Undersalted fettuccine just made things worse. At least the tail-on shrimp were cooked nicely.
Though I requested pink, the arista ($21.95), or spice-rubbed pork tenderloin, arrived tough and gray.
I did, however, enjoy eating every Madeira-infused black mission fig on the plate.
But pollo alla gratella ($17.95) impressed with a moist chicken breast with a sauce of artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, Gorgonzola and a touch of cream. Mashed potatoes and sauteed zucchini, red onions and bell peppers accompanied the plate.
We also were wowed with the execution of two beef dishes. A recent special filet al verde ($25.95) was a perfectly rosy, tender piece of beef with a zippy green sauce of parsley, garlic, capers, basil and olive oil while the bistecca ($25.95), a double-tall hockey puck-size cut, was topped with meaty and earthy wild mushrooms. Mashed potatoes and the same tangle of vegetables as the pollo alla gratella came alongside each dish.
Of the desserts I sampled on two visits -- tiramisu ($5.95), Ghirardelli chocolate mousse ($4.95), crème brulée ($4.95), New York-style cheesecake ($3.95), Turkish coffee gelato ($4.95) and chocolate decadence cake ($5.95) -- only the latter two were worthy of complete consumption. The dense, moist cake came with a garnish of blackberries, while the coffee gelato was great on its own and didn't need whole coffee beans as garnish.
Service also was a mixed bag. On one evening, service went from mediocre to miserable as the restaurant, and our server, got busier. Half of our party's water glasses were filled, others went unfilled; entrées and desserts arrived while appetizer plates remained on the table; some of us were left without utensils -- until we got someone's attention - while our entrees cooled. On another evening, service was better, but, once again, we began to be neglected as the place filled with diners.
Twenty of the 32 wines offered are available by the glass, from $6 to $9. Twelve of those 32 bottles are Italian. And while the list isn't particularly exciting, the markup is reasonable. With the exception of a couple of high-end wines, such as the 2003 Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon Napa for $105, wines average around $37 a bottle. Corkage is $10.
It's no small feat to remain in business as long as Caffè Molise. In that time the restaurant has tripled in size, taking over space next door and adding seasonal outdoor dining in adjacent Dinwoody Park. Paring down the menu to execute fewer dishes, but flawlessly, and thinking a bit more about obscure Italian wines, could ensure many more profitable years for the veteran Italian restaurant.
Tribune's rating system
1 star Good
2 stars Very good
3 stars Excellent
4 stars Extraordinary
$ Entree under $10
$$$$ Above $25
1 bell Quiet (under 65 decibles)
2 bells Can talk easily (65-70)
3 bells Talking somewhat difficult (70-75)
4 bells Raised voices (75-80)
A bomb Too noisy for normal conversation (80+)
The Tribune covers the cost of all meals at reviewed restaurants. Star ratings are based on a minimum of two visits. Ratings are updated continually based on at least one revisit. There is no connection between reviews and advertising.