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Wednesday, November 14, 2001

A taste of southern Italy

Posted By on Wed, Nov 14, 2001 at 12:00 AM

There are so many Italian restaurants on Erie Street in Windsor — 21 at last count, including the pizzerias — that a diner is hard-pressed to choose. Should you go by region of Italy represented? Age in the neighborhood? Whether or not the waiter calls you “signora”?

La Contessa (“the countess”) occupies one of the oldest venues on the strip, although current owners, Maddalena and Renato Zavaglia, have been in charge for only five years. They met in Italy because their mammas were from the same hometowns. Their dishes, says Renato, hail from all over the peninsula, with a certain tilt toward the south.

On two recent Saturdays, La Contessa was full. Zavaglia says many steady customers order before they come in, asking for dishes that are not on the menu. For these lucky ones, the kitchen will prepare Roman dishes such as osso buco (braised veal shanks) or oxtail.

The printed menu is generous with options, however, including both tried-and-trues and some less common selections.

Although a few of those choices are outstanding, my beef with La Contessa is that the dishes tend to be all on one note: just one amorphous flavor. Some of those notes are tasty, but it’s not the most subtle kind of cooking. Better to make each ingredient shine, both separately and in combination.

For example, I try to order perciatelli just for the fabulous way these big fat ropes of spaghetti feel in the mouth. I couldn’t tell you what was in La Contessa’s sauce, however. I ordered the special one night, house-made pasta in a blush sauce, and it was quite acceptable but monotone. The wild mushrooms announced as part of the dish were not visible.

Another night, neither the veal nor the prosciutto in the veal saltimbocca and the panzarotto del conte had much flavor. If it hadn’t been for their sauce, the gnocchi (potato dumplings) would have tasted like nothing at all.

Better were the very rich rigatoni dello chef, with lots of black olives in a cream sauce, and tortellini Parigina (that’s Paris), cunning little ears with ham and Parmesan in a cognac cream sauce.

After a protracted disagreement within our party over an appetizer, I put my foot down for the insalata di mare, and was sorry. The one flavor of the baby octopi, calamari and shrimp was — green olive juice. Better to go with the bruschetta, which is garlicky and done right, or with one of the best minestrones I’ve ever tasted, full of big chunks of fresh vegetables.

La Contessa’s Caesar salad (lots o’ Parm) is standard. Save two bucks and get the simple house salad instead; it has an excellent light dressing. Tiramisu and cappuccino cheesecake are fine but not out of this world.

La Contessa is a pretty place, with high-backed chairs upholstered in a flower pattern, candles and white linens. It’s popular, as I said, and that could be why dinner took our party of three an hour and three-quarters on a Saturday night.

If you’ve been avoiding Windsor, you’ll be glad to know that waits at the tunnel are once again brief. Brief, that is, for those of the ethnicity, manner of dress, etc., preferred by our guardians of freedom.

Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. E-mail


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