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Through letters and recommendations, I'd heard of magical meals at Rino's. The type where the kindly Neapolitan owner, Rino di Meo, whips up something special for longtime guests. When I told friends that I was going there, most confessed to never having visited the 27-year-old restaurant with the kind of reverence usually reserved for places like Graceland.
For many, Rino's is the stuff of nostalgia. For me, it's a source of mystery. Many had recommended it as the best Italian venue around. Only one, a trusted friend with a discriminating palate who had gone in the past, warned me of the potential downsides of its cuisine.
"Rino's can be really good," he said slowly, like an oracle reading from a fire. "Or, it can be really bad."
In the height of summer, as it is now, Rino's has two sides. Literally. On one visit, the hostess explained that the patio was full so she sat us inside, past the distant chat-
ter of diners happy to be in the pleasant evening air.
From our booth, you'd never guess it was summer. The main area is a dark space, crammed with décor - a restaurant that time forgot. The effect is a bit like the cottage in Hansel and Gretel. I half expected the Dutch masters' prints to come alive and advise me what to order as I perused the wine list (by-the-glass selections are pedestrian) made notable only by photos of the bottles posed in various outdoor and stylish scenes.
As for the food, the menu shows off an Italian cuisine from the 1980s. For the most part, these are simple and familiar dishes that rely heavily on red sauce and blander sauces in various incarnations: entrees like veal parmesan ($28.50), lasagna ($16.50), ravioli ($16.50) like you'd find at other places that serve the frozen kind and a one-dimensional bolognese ($18.50). The food seems to be stuck in time. And during this visit, so were we - service was friendly, but slow, as we sipped coffee listening to the hostess plead to Rino to close for the evening with the ferocity and logic of a teenager looking to extend her curfew.
But it isn't all bad. There is the seasonal side of Rino's, genuinely warmer as the dining spills out onto the patio and service is more attentive. Old grape vines provide shade with their broad leaves and clusters of fruit. Here, it's more likely Rino or his business partner Hoss Takmil will lavish hospitality and charm tableside.
Just beyond the parking lot is a lush garden protected by barbed wire and a chain-linked fence. The produce from that plot, tended by Rino, provides much of the seasonal specials that are noteworthy. Fried zucchini blossoms come in a seasonal vegetable appetizer ($10.99) and are a rare treat in town.
Still, for all the freshness involved, items were inexplicably bland. The blossoms' vegetable companions would've improved greatly with a squeeze of fresh lemon and a sprinkling of salt. A special vegetable lasagna ($17.99) was almost an updated sequel of an antipasto with the same vegetables layered between thin pasta sheets. Like the bolognese, it was one-dimensional. How I wanted a magic wand to wave and - POOF - add more garlic in the sauce. Another wave and maybe a touch of creamy white béchamel or a sprinkling of cheese to round out the overwhelming acidity.
Wild mushrooms and zucchini blossoms are the miracle of an abundant season. Rino himself forages for wild fungi in the Uintas and this year found a good harvest of local boletus (porcini). Unfortunately, they didn't have much flavor in a special pasta ($21.99) that was studded with lovely, but mild, zucchini blossoms, and equally mild and not-so-wild cremini mushrooms. Dried porcini stock, other varieties of wild mushrooms, even a handful of farmed shiitake would've improved the dish.
You say I complain too much? I say for the high-end price tag, I can demand better. A dinner for three with only one glass of wine among us cost about $150. The special antipasti that boasted freshness and lacked flavor were each $11. The food may have stayed the same for the sake of nostalgia, but the prices have not.
So am I a believer? Obviously, can't say that I am. Though I have a profound respect for Rino's endurance in Salt Lake's restaurant scene, I'm a skeptic when it comes to its reported culinary magic.
Vanessa Chang is a Tribune restaurant reviewer. E-mail her at email@example.com. To comment on this column, write firstname.lastname@example.org.
Produce fresh, but where's the wow?
Overall rating »
Noise » 2 bells
In a nutshell: Retro-styled Italian food in a dark, cozy space or a grape-trellised patio. Summer is the best time to visit when Rino's own garden supplies fresh produce.
Where » 2302 Parley's Way, Salt Lake City; 801-484-0901
Hours » Monday to Thursday, 6-9 p.m.; Friday to Saturday, 5:30-9:30 p.m.; Sunday, 5-8:30 p.m.
Children's menu » No
Prices » $$$
Liquor » Full bar
Corkage » $
Reservations » No
Takeout » Yes
Wheelchair access » No
Outdoor dining » Yes
On-site parking » Yes
Credit cards » All major