Plates of plenty

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A friend of ours who lives in New Jersey recently reported that she had her birthday dinner at a local Maggiano's. I wondered why anyone living in a state known for such authentic family-owned Italian restaurants as Artie Bucco's Nuovo Vesuvio would choose to eat at a chain "store." Or why anyone in our area, who could go to Maria's, Vince's, Giovanni's, Luciano's or any number of places on Windsor's Erie Street, would end up at a Maggiano's in Troy.

A visit to the free-standing castle-like edifice east of Crooks on Big Beaver Road offers some answers. One of 41 in a national chain, this upscale family restaurant is designed to look and feel like a venerable neighborhood institution, just as the original, which opened in Chicago in 1991, was designed to appear as if it had been a downtown destination since the 1930s.

The corporate designers who created this handsome and spacious trattoria, which can seat 250, filled the walls with vintage family photographs (some of which are real families of co-workers), put in a vintage white mosaic tile floor in the lounge, and, especially, conceived a menu dominated by sturdy tomato "gravy" standards served in gargantuan portions. The red-checked tablecloths, partially covered by thick white cloths, complete the Little Italy motif. All that is missing are the candles burning from straw-covered chianti-bottles.

Many of the autographed celebrity glossies on the walls, highlighted by Frank Sinatra, Jay Leno and Chris Chelios in a Blackhawks uniform, are copies from the Chicago flagship — as is the bill of fare.

Even though chef Erik Andresen and his staff make virtually everything from scratch, you can rest assured that what you order at the original as well as at Michigan's Maggiano's will be familiar, predictable and, most important, of solid quality. No surprises here, and that is what patrons desire.

Many come for the family dinners ($24.95) that include two huge platters each from an encyclopedic selection of appetizers, salads, pastas, entrées and desserts. And virtually all of those who bravely confront the mounds of food will go home with sizable doggie bags. That is also what they expected, so much so that Maggiano's first-class doggie bags are foil-lined boxes complete with detailed reheating instructions.

You can, of course, order your meal a la carte, with many, still-sizable half portions for lighter eaters. On the other hand, the frugal gourmand might be tempted to go for a full order of fried calamari at $12.95 when a half order costs, in some sort of new math, $9.25.

The math is less complicated for the bombalini platter ($13.25), composed of a tangy spinach-artichoke mélange, relatively light fried zucchini, bruschetta piled high with a sprightly tomato salsa and some not especially exciting, although well-executed, stuffed mushrooms and crispy onions. This popular starter easily serves four. The hearty minestrone soup, full of uneven vegetable chunks, and certainly looking like the real house-made thing, is another winning first course. In addition, Maggiano's warm, gently crusted bread is a welcome accompaniment.

But you can carry this homey neighborhood theme a bit too far. The person who bused our table one night returned to the tablecloth, alongside our clean cutlery, the dirty knives we used to carve up our appetizers, a crude practice you might accept only in a real mom-and-pop operation.

Cutlery aside, among the salads, the chopped, enhanced with prosciutto, blue cheese and avocado with a sweet dressing, is a better bet than the Caesar. Of the 10 pasta preparations ($12.95-$16.95 per full order), the linguine and clams with a spicy white-wine sauce is an admirable rendition of a classic, while the savory garlic shrimp linguine with a tomato and white wine sauce may disappoint because of the size of the crustaceans. You can substitute whole-wheat penne or gluten-free pasta in any of these dishes, which also include fettuccini Alfredo and chicken pesto linguine.

One of Maggiano's self-proclaimed "Little Italy Favorites," South Philly chicken cacciatore, blends ample chunks of meat with mushrooms, roasted peppers and onions in tomato-sauced pappardelle. There are also several veal dishes highlighted by a veal piccata ($22.95), pleasingly tender in a zestier-than-usual lemon sauce, salmon in another lemon sauce ($23.95 or $19.95 for a half order) and four beef offerings.

The intelligent wine list, dominated by Italian, West Coast and Australian varietals, features several bottles for less than $30, such as decent chianti for $24. But if this is Little Italy, why no house wine in liters a la Maria's in Ferndale?

Desserts, which may be difficult to handle after polishing off several of the previous courses, are usual suspects such as tiramisu, New York cheesecake, spumoni, profiteroles and sugary lemon cookies.

As his guests lumber away from the groaning board, manager Eric Batson hopes that he and his colleagues have produced the old-fashioned dining experience one would expect in an American city's Little Italy. There is no doubt that his kitchen performs that task quite well. Whether Maggiano's is able to pull off the rest of the illusion is up to the beholder.

Mel Small teaches history at Wayne State University. Send comments to [email protected].

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