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There wasn't any need to change the name: Longtime restaurateurs Michael and Yuli Waters sold their restaurant, the Italian Couple, to another Italian couple, Claudio and Zarina Fornaris.
That kind of continuity is probably a good thing. Authenticity, or at least a reasonable claim to authenticity, is the quality diners seem to value above all at the Italian Couple. Opened initially in 1996, in an unattractive cinder block building on West 12th, the restaurant managed to transcend its location (a booster-ish draw to some) and attract a devoted following. A robbery sent the couple packing after just three years in business, but when they returned to the same locale in 2005, the crowds were waiting for them. A year later, when they relocated to another nondescript building in a more prominent location on Third Street, their clientele, at least judging from the always-full parking lot, grew.
We get it. There is charm in the broken English menu (“sliced tonatoes”). There's charm in the lack of pretension in the no-frills dining room, which is noteworthy mostly for being dark. There's charm in the service, always effusive, if occasionally inattentive. Those endearing qualities remain two months into the Fornarises' tenure. In fact, the whole restaurant remains virtually unchanged.
In an interview soon after he took control of the restaurant, Claudio Fornaris promised to retain the core of the Northern Italian-influence menu, which is filled with pasta dishes and creamy sauces common in the region, while incrementally adding dishes inspired from his native Torino. After we asked, on a recent weekday night, if any new items had been added, our server reeled off a half dozen or so, none of which were on the menu. Unless the kitchen was just out of ingredients, these dishes are apparently replacing, rather than adding to, menu items: One of our companions tried to order the eggplant Parmesan, only to be told that the eggplant lasagna — a new dish — had taken its place. When another member of our party tried to order the gnocchi with pesto, he was asked to try it with gorgonzola.
We were a pliable bunch and taken with our appetizer. The Antipasto di Yuli ($10.95) was the object of our affection — a generous serving of basil-sprinkled sliced tomatoes, thin slivers of prosciutto and cheese and thick, imported olives. Simple, classic and delicious. Don't let the price of the appetizers (from $8.25 to $13.95) dissuade you, particularly if you're dining in a crowd. The portions are meal-sized.
Unremarkable — but still enjoyable — iceberg and olive dinner salads promptly followed the appetizer.
The service was friendly, but intermittent. Aside from a buser, our waitress worked the restaurant alone, and, one of our party speculated, possibly prepared the food, too. Most frustratingly, neither she nor the buser roamed with a water pitcher. We drank our companion's before new glasses of water appeared.
Still, the food continued to come quickly: Our entrees arrived hot and heaping, to mixed reviews. The thick, rich blue cheese of gorgonzola overwhelmed the already hearty potato-based gnocchi ($12.95), one companion said. But the other, who set out for eggplant Parmesan and got eggplant lasagna ($12.95), appreciated the vegetable twist on the standard and ravenously made her way through it.
We had the grilled pork chops, one of four meat dishes, including sauteed veal ($13.95), pan-seared sirloin ($11.95) and sauteed chicken breast. Well seasoned, tender and juicy, the chops impressed, though the side of ragu on penne underwhelmed. The sauce was less thick and marrow-y than the Waters'.
Other items on the menu include the expected varieties of pastas and sauces (ranging from $8.95 to $12.95) and fish dishes ranging from shrimp to lobster to seafood-stuffed pastas ($12.95 to $15.95).
We left too stuffed to try dessert, though the restaurant offers an array of tasty house-made selections. Lombardi limoncello, the Waters' liqueur brand, to which they're now devoting their full attentions, remains on the after-dinner menu as well.
We'll be back.
The Italian Couple
1900 W. 3rd St.
Consider wine-and-cheesing it: The wine list is full and not unreasonable, and a couple of appetizers could satisfy anyone's hunger. The Tuscan meats appetizer, which comes with cheese and olives as well, is particularly hearty.
11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday, 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
Moderate to expensive prices. Credit cards accepted. Wine and beer served.