Restaurants with huge menus are good for many things. Across-the-board food quality is not always one of them.
Norwood's new Italian-American restaurant, Tutti Giorni, is no exception.
If I had dropped in as a customer, and ordered the rice balls, the Sunday sauce and the sfogliatelle for dessert, I would have been ecstatic. I'd tell everyone I knew to go there — stat. I'd return as soon as I could.
But if I had instead picked the tough octopus and the dry eggplant parmigiana, I'd never give the place another thought.
This was a theme that kept repeating itself. I'd be digging into a terrific dish while my friend across the table gazed sadly at hers. Or our entire table would converge on one plate and ignore the next.
In the end, Tutti Giorni had enough great offerings to blunt the bad ones. So if you live nearby, this restaurant is worth a try, particularly if you need a place with enough options to appeal to many different types of eaters. Just be forewarned that all those eaters might not end the meal with the same degree of enthusiasm.
The restaurant now cuts a classy presence on Livingston Street — you'd never know it was previously home to a procession of fast-food restaurants. That was the intention of partners Dean Benasillo (the owner of La Casa Formosa in Northvale) and Rocco Sicuranza, who did much of the demolition and designed some of the decor. Related by marriage, the two partners grew up in big Italian families that indulged in big Sunday dinners; Sicuranza fondly recalls lazy, pasta-heavy afternoons at his grandmother's that sometimes ended in him swiping a few leftover meatballs before leaving at night.
Now, they've created a 65-seat restaurant that feels classy and warm, complete with a full bar, wine specials, a raw bar and pizza oven. You sit on leather-looking banquettes, surrounded by textured maroon walls.
But your own personal space might not feel as luxurious: tables are set fairly close to one another, and aisles are pretty tight. Weaving my way through a busy dining room toward the exit was a challenge; I felt bad for the servers who were doing their best to squeeze between tables while juggling heavy plates.
Expect friendly service. Our waiter was enthusiastic though extremely inexperienced on a weekday, but we found a much more informed waitress on a Saturday evening.
Let's get this out of the way first — the dishes that made us want to bolt for another restaurant: three grilled baby octopus tentacles that presented a serious chore to chew ($18); a towering eggplant parmigiana that badly needed more sauce and less of a refrigerator burn ($16); a 12-inch margherita pizza with fresh mozzarella but a doughy crust ($10); and one of the nightly specials, a veal chop ($32) that bore such a blackened crust that I could not taste meat, just a burned flavor.
And now for the dishes that made us very happy: Sunday sauce packed with a meatball, braciole and sausage straight from Arthur Avenue, served with rigatoni ($18; all of the pasta served here is fresh, not dried, according to Sicuranza). Fat, cheesy rice balls, topped with fresh ricotta ($10). Tender calamari ($13). The Tutti Giorni burger, topped with a fun combination of crispy pancetta, asiago, arugula and caramelized onions ($14).
Hang in there for dessert. You'll find a fudgy chocolate lava cake ($8), a flaky sfogliatelle scented with citrus ($7) and a classic tiramisù ($8): all fantastic. Most of the desserts here are not made in-house, but are still capable of redeeming any prior flaws in your meal.
Tutti Giorni **
530 Livingston St.
Food: Italian-American, with a big menu that varies in quality.
Ambience: Classy, renovated dining room crowded with tables.
Service: Casual, welcoming. Very amateur on one evening.
Value: Really depends on what you order. Fine for the better items. Appetizers $8 to $18, entrées $10 to $36 (lots of choices under $20).
Would be good for: Casual neighborhood dinner.
Less appropriate for: Destination dinner or anyone looking for lots of elbow room.
Recommended dishes: Rice ball "special," Sunday sauce, sfogliatelle, chocolate lava cake.
Hours: Lunch: noon to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Dinner: 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, 5 to 11 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 3 to 10 p.m. Sunday.
Liquor, wine: Full bar, mostly familiar wine list.
Noise level: Can be loud, even when the restaurant isn't full.
Credit cards: AE, D, MC, V.
Reservations: Accepted only for parties of four or more. Recommended for Friday and Saturday nights.
Accommodations for children: Menu, highchairs.
Dress: Neat casual.
Early-bird specials or deals: Three-course $9.95 lunch special.
Reviewed: April 27, 2012.
About the ratings
In determining ratings, each restaurant has been compared with others of the same type and level of ambition. Reviewers make at least two anonymous visits to a restaurant, and the newspaper always pays the tab.
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