Recently, the website “Money Wise” announced that Maggiano’s Little Italy is America’s favorite “casual dining restaurant” – the usual term these days for a full-service chain restaurant. I typically dislike chain restaurants and had no idea that a Maggiano’s has stood on Peachtree near Lenox Square for about 20 years. So, when my friend Frank received a discount card, another friend and I joined him for dinner there last week. I viewed it as an anthropological expedition.
It was indeed an expedition. As soon as you open the door of this truly enormous place, you are sucked into a retro dimension of dark wood booths and mirrored panels, of blue floral carpeting and red-and-white checked tablecloths. The light is golden. We were whisked through the main dining room to a smaller adjoining room, then led to the back corner. It was the worst table in the house – we did have a reservation – and our principal view was of a toddler drooling and heaving bits of food from his mouth while his mama clutched a bag of paper diapers. Then the magic began. At the other end of the room, a man sat down at a piano with a trombone and began singing Sinatra-era songs. I was suddenly a kid, watching my parents dance in our living room to records they played on the hi-fi.
The enormous menu is as nostalgic as the music. “Little Italy” refers to neighborhoods populated by Italian immigrants in cities like New York and Chicago at the end of the 19th century. Unable to get all the fresh ingredients to prepare the food they grew up eating, they developed what’s become known as Italian-American cuisine. For example, tossing meatballs with pasta is an American novelty, as are popular dishes like chicken and veal parmigiana.
Maggiano’s offers a twofer that both my dinner companions fell for. If you buy a specialty pasta, you can choose a full serving of a “classic pasta” to carry home in an over-sized paper bag. They both selected the carbonara specialty – spaghetti in a relatively light, creamy sauce with green peas and pieces of bacon. It was topped with a poached egg. Their take-home choices were Fettucine Alfredo and spaghetti and meatballs in a meat sauce. I understand the miserly appeal of spending $19 on the carbonara and then getting a $15 freebie, but, bitch, please! I’d prefer to go to BoccaLupo and spend $20 or so for a spectacular pasta than eat something mediocre to get a second portion of greater mediocrity.
I resisted the great bargain and ordered the chicken saltimbocca. In Maggiano’s $20 version, it is two pounded chicken breasts topped with a layer of prosciutto so skinny I barely noticed it. Further, it was covered in a thick layer of melted provolone cheese. All of this was served in a pool of wine sauce. You know, despite the microfiber prosciutto, it was okay. The chicken was tender, the cheese was creamy. It had a nicely pungent whiff of sage. What I would never order again is the side “chopped salad.” For $6.99, I got a bowl of hacked up iceberg thinly topped with crumbled blue cheese, a couple of avocado slices, some tomatoes, and some more indiscernible prosciutto. If you order this, get the damn dressing on the side. It was pure sugar.
The menu here is truly huge, with lots of veal and beef entrees, as well as starters and desserts. The service is excellent and it’s clear that Maggiano’s is a regular gathering place for lots of people, including many gay boys – some accompanied by half-smiling parents. But here’s some news: Not far away is a new chain taqueria called Blue Velvet. That’s where you need to take your money. I’ll write about that next time.
Maggiano’s Little Italy
3368 Peachtree Road