My husband and I stopped at Desiderio Italian American Grill on a mid week evening for early dinner. We were cheerfully greeted and seated, and a server quickly appeared tableside to take our drink order. Unfortunately the staff did not have any idea what Campari, a classic, internationally well-known Italian aperitif. My husband had to look through the bottles at the bar find it, show the staff what it was and how to serve it; not a great first impression for an Italian restaurant…but we soldiered on filled with hope.
We ordered two appetisers; the Mozzarella Medallions and Grandma Joanie’s Meatballs, about which we had heard good things. We also ordered Seafood Fra ‘Diavolo and Linguini and Clam Sauce, the latter described as “a house favorite”. We were instructed that there were no more mussels available for the Fra ‘Diavolo, as there had been an “all you can eat” mussels event the night before and they were gone. We asked for the clam sauce to be prepared “white” (there was no selection of ingredients on the menu) and in the Fra ‘Diavolo to use clams to replace whatever mussels were missing.
Bread arrived in the form of grilled toasts with a balsamic dipping sauce. It was interesting, a unique twist on the usual bread and olive oil or butter served in most restaurants. The Mozzarella Medallions and meatballs arrived within a few minutes and were both delicious. Some of the meatballs had more of a firm texture than others, but were flavourful and heavily sauced in reasonably thick tomato based gravy. The Mozzarella Medallions were delightful; fresh flash fried in clean, good quality oil after having been dipped in the scarcest bit of Italian bread crumbs. They were piping hot and served with more of the same thick tomato based gravy on the side.
Then disaster struck. The Fra ‘Diavolo arrived redolent of mussels despite the speech about having none left, which caught our curiosity. Evidently there had been a failure in communication between the kitchen and wait staff. Then we were offered grated parmesean cheese, something that should traditionally never be served with seafood, and which we declined. The Fra ‘Diavolo was so salty that my husband could not eat it, as the salt, not the spice, was corrosive to his lips and tongue. He could not taste the subtleties of the seafood. He did not enjoy the sand in the first forkful of pasta either. My linguini and clam sauce was swimming in a greasy, salty puddle that fully obstructed the flavour of the clams. It was not extra virgin olive oil, and I don’t think it was AAA quality butter either. I could not believe this was a representation of what should be one of the simplest, most flavourful dishes in any “Italian” chef’s repertoire. In whose house is this dish a favourite? I wondered. We both put down our forks and sat quietly for a contemplative moment. These are simple dishes which when properly prepared with fresh ingredients should be home runs.
One of the owners stopped by and asked us if we were satisfied. We reluctantly explained that neither of the dishes was up to par, and that in fact the salt added had rendered them inedible. He was very apologetic and immediately took them back to the kitchen for a re-fire. The second try appeared within minutes. The Fra ‘Diavolo was better this time, and while it was still salty, my husband was able to taste the seafood and enjoy the dish. The linguini with white clam sauce however did not fare so well and was still far too salty. Then I figured it out: there were anchovies in the recipe. That’s why it was so salty. Nowhere on the menu does it state that their version of clam sauce includes anchovies, and they don’t tell you when you order either. Traditional white clam sauce is a simple combination of olive oil, a pat of butter for richness, garlic, fresh clams and their liquor, white wine, a squeeze of lemon, and oregano and/or fresh parsley, with crushed red pepper flakes used as a popular condiment. If you’re going to adulterate a traditional dish with a decidedly pungent ingredient such as anchovies you should inform diners. Wouldn’t you want to know if your otherwise subtle shellfish dish was prepared with anchovies? Half of the clams were not even open on the second try, probably in an effort to get the re-fired dish out ASAP they were not given ample time to cook.
When the owner returned again and saw that I wasn’t enjoying the second attempt, I wasn’t sure how he would react. To my relief, he graciously listened while I explained my finding, told me he respected what I had to say, and then offered me something else from the menu. By that point I had had enough of a bad experience that I did not wish to try another entrée. He removed the dish and we were not charged for either pasta entrée. *Note: Of the 25 or so internet recipes and the 30 + regional Italian cookbooks I own containing white clam sauce recipes which I referenced after this culinary debacle, I found two (2) which contained anchovies as an “optional” ingredient, and both of those were from celebrity TV chefs the likes of Rachel Ray.
Dessert was another matter entirely. You cannot go wrong with Lavazza coffee, which we enjoyed with what was described by the wait staff as “a huge piece of chocolate cake”, and Cannoli flown in from NY…. which when I inquired, was pleased to learn were filled on site to order. The Cannoli was wonderful, everything a Cannoli should be. Evidently the “huge piece of chocolate cake” was indeed large and I agree, the uneaten portion was good enough to bring home for later.
All in all, we may return in a few months to see if the food has improved, or if the staff has become a bit more acquainted with what authentic Italian ingredients are and how to use them. They cannot be faulted, however, for how they handled our discontent. They remained pleasant, apologetic, and accommodating at all times. We tipped as though we had been charged for the entrees, as it was not our wait staff’s fault that the food was inedible. A few tweaks and this place might be good, but getting the basics right are crucial. If they can match the quality of food prepared with the quality of their positive attitude, they will do well.