Andiamo Ristorante owner Daniela Marcone hovers near the desk at the front of her restaurant. Speaking on the phone in Italian to a potential customer, she says something to the effect of, "This is a traditional Italian restaurant. ... No, there is no fettuccine alfredo or lasagna." With a warm, sympathetic chuckle she adds, "No, no pizza."
Andiamo's food might strive for authenticity, but its location is not what you'd expect for a white-tablecloth Italian restaurant. Located off Burnet Road in a dated strip mall that looks like it could be home to a baseball card shop and a Fred Astaire Dance Studio, Andiamo appears as if it were plucked from early-'90s Middle America.
Naples, Italy, native Marcone, who first worked as hostess and then general manager at the 7-year-old restaurant she purchased two years ago, exhibits pride when noting that the restaurant's food has roots that spread from calf to toe of the booted Italian peninsula. The result is an array of dishes that have Italian DNA but at times suffer from the American sin of heaviness and richness while speaking with a French or Swiss accent.
The limited menu – this is no Gianni's Pasta Barn – is separated into antipasti, insalatas, primi (pasta) and secondi (protein) piatti. Though Italian custom generally serves that a meal include a primi and a secondi, Marcone says some customers have trouble adjusting to the style. Therefore, Andiamo's pasta plates are big enough to serve as an entrée unto themselves. The restaurant offers half plates of pasta at both dinner and lunch, however, allowing the full range of the culinary experience.
At less than $5, a half-plate of the spaghetti cacio e pepe ($4.25) at lunch may be one of the best values of any pasta dish in town. Small, thin pennants of Parmesan cheese top al dente pasta that has a feisty bout of pepper you feel in your nose. Rich flavors of pecorino Romano cheese pacify the spice and miniature garlic pieces, white and strong like travertine, leave a wonderful aftertaste. The small pool of oil at the bottom of the plate reminds you that unfortunately America has not adopted the siesta, and your afternoon back at the office may drag on like a scoreless soccer match.
From the Roman cacio e pepe, it's a trip up the Italian Riviera for a half plate of linguine cozze e calamari ($5.25) that you might find in places like Cinque Terre, one of the dozen Italian locales featured in photos on stretched canvases throughout the restaurant. The open mussels drank in the acidic burst of fresh, rich tomato sauce that served as a delicious broth for the tender rings of calamari.
Artichokes and sun-dried tomatoes provide tart tang and chewiness to the medley of crunchy carrots, firm green beans and softening squash and zucchini in the pollo alla Romana ($10.50). Marcone says the restaurant shops local farmers markets for produce, and the freshness is evident here, though most of the vegetables seem like they would be more appropriate for a pasta primavera. The slightly overcooked chicken was enlivened by a lemon basil sauce, but the white wine and butter do their best to knock you out.
The same vegetables from the chicken, along with peppers and onions, return with the scaloppine allo champagne ($12.50). The creamy sauce looks like a boring blanket of brown, but the color is true to the delicious blend of shiitake and cremini mushrooms that give the dish a rich, earthy flavor. Despite the intensity of the mushrooms, the perfectly cooked veal, its texture not completely hammered beyond recognition, stands up to the challenge, though the heavy dish feels like it wanders over the northern border of Italy.
Dinner offers a completely different, and pricier, menu than lunch, though the format remains the same. Dinner entrees start at $16.50, and most are double the price of lunch entrees. Of course, at dinner, one can also indulge in wine with a little less guilt. The wine list, curated by Marcone, features Italian wines exclusively, about two dozen by the glass and another couple dozen by the bottle, with pages of information and maps at the back describing different regions of Italian winemaking and the varietals they produce.
The melenzane ($9.50) appetizer has the eggplant serving solely as a cheese delivery system. The thinly sliced purple vegetable rolls a trio of cheeses into something that resembles a cannoli. The dish looks pretty but lacks any nuance or flavor beyond a creamy burst of ricotta.
Carpaccio ($13) had an odd bologna (the meat, not the city) color and unfamiliar presentation. Served as large thin circles of meat, the raw dish features an odd mixture of artichokes and barely roasted red peppers that would be more at home on a charcuterie or salumi plate. The flavor of the filet is lost amid its toppings, which all express themselves awkwardly, like they don't know why they were invited to the dish. The penne con salsiccia ($8.75) has little personality and less color. The heavy saffron cream sauce lacks the defining yellow color you'd expect and seems like it would be better utilized in a seafood dish. More flavor and seasoning, in the form of fennel and salt, may have helped redeem the dish.
Gnocchi alle spezie ($8.75) proved a different story. Doughy and supple, the potato dumplings offered heft without being clumsily heavy. Garlic olive oil provided a pungent lift to the starchy and lightly toasted dish that is served with tomatoes and portobellos.
All of the veggies from the lunch entrees returned with the gamberi Andiamo ($19.50). Seeing the same vegetables at the table felt monotonous but also gave credence to Marcone's statement that they like to serve what Mother Nature dictates. Salty prosciutto avoided the sins of being stringy or leathery but overwhelmed the sweet and perfectly cooked shrimp. There was allegedly crab meat stuffed in the crustaceans, but it was impossible to taste or see, drowned as the shrimp were in a brown sauce that congealed like a Hungry-Man dinner.
Prosciutto asserted itself again in the pollo Piemontese ($20), as the chicken wore the ham and a layer of fontina cheese like a bad toupee. A rare sight at an Italian restaurant, mashed potatoes served with both our entrees were buttery and full of garlic presence. Add to that the viscous veal reduction brown sauce, and it felt like Thanksgiving in August.
The potatoes were the only hint of autumn, with the dining room as warm as an early summer day. To the credit of the restaurant's funky charm and friendly staff, however, other diners did not seem uncomfortable. Music accompaniment provided by The Flying Balalaika Brothers had the mood waltzing in the space between charm and chintz.
Andiamo relies on its chef, rather than a pastry chef, to produce the desserts as well, and the results are a testament to the virtues of expertise. Tiramisu ($8) lacked moisture and the density of the cake weighed down the normally ascendant dessert. The millefoglie ($8) offered a bit more pleasure. The puff pastry that slightly resembles slices of ciabatta, is draped with a sugary, chantilly cream and bright raspberry sauce that plays well with the berries on top.
The cream sauce echoes the beige tones of the tablecloths and walls, which are bordered with a drab maroon. With bland colors, dark carpet and lace curtains, Andiamo kind of looks like the Italian restaurant in a micro-budget local mobster film.
Despite its strip-mall surroundings, there is a certain Old World charm to Andiamo, whose soul is definitely in the right place. Marcone's desk near the entrance feels uniquely European as she alternates between playing affable host and working on her computer. The authentic dishes suffer from a bit of wanderlust and richness, but they are certainly not Americanized caricatures of Italian food.
2521 Rutland Drive. 719-3377, Andiamoitaliano.com
Rating: 6.5 out of 10
Hours: Mondays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to close (with seating available until 10 p.m.); Saturday, 5 p.m. to close (with seating available until 10 p.m.)
Prices: Appetizers $5-$14.50. Entrees $8.50-$25.
Notes: Monthly wine dinners held the last Tuesday of every month.
What the rating means:The 10-point scale is an average of weighted scores for food, service, value, ambience and overall dining experience, with 10 being the best.
The Bottom Line: Andiamo suffers from some heavy dishes and an unenviable location, but its soul is in the right place.