For real estate agents, it's location. For me, a dining critic, it's all about timing from the wait to be seated to the lapse between ordering and eating to the countdown for the check. Recently, my companions and I went to Puccini and Pasta, Peabody Place's newest restaurant, a stylish establishment with a sleek interior, great music, and tasty cuisine with one drawback faulty timing.
Puccini and Pasta seats 240 patrons comfortably, which, on the night we dined there, included several members of the U of M Tigers basketball team. The modern interior with its subtle lighting, wine rack, high-back booths, and cozy tables radiates style and romance. A scurrying wait staff decked out in black and white outfits added a touch of class, and sultry jazz music played faintly in the background.
For starters, we tried the carpaccio, a thinly sliced, cured beef filet served with a mixture of mustard sauce, olive oil, and lemon juice in a bed of baby greens, sliced Parmesan cheese, and tomato. The cozze mare were tender, sweet, fresh mussels steamed in white wine, Pernod (anise-flavored liqueur), olive oil, lemon, basil, and a hint of garlic. The menu warned that the dish might be served with tomato sauce instead of basil, and I was thrilled that it was not. The only unappetizing thing about our appetizers: They arrived before our beverages, and we had to request our drinks a second time after waiting about 20 minutes.
Soup and salad selections are limited. We ordered the minestrone and the pasta fagioli. Both soups had a hearty stock as their base. The minestrone combined chickpeas, Parmesan, spinach, kidney beans, sausage, vegetables, and noodles, while the pasta fagioli married great Northern beans, tomatoes, spinach, pasta, and celery. I was surprised by the minestrone its broth and vegetables could have made a meal alone.
After a lengthy wait, and while our server was apologizing for the delay in our salads, our entrées arrived. The entrées were then taken back to the kitchen, and, with visions of our dishes sitting under a warming lamp, we rushed through our salads. Again, it's all about timing.
As for those salads, the mixed greens included radicchio and baby greens topped with mushrooms, red onions, roasted and peeled peppers, and feta cheese drizzled with a vinaigrette and surrounded by tender, peppery endive leaves. The Caesar salad's romaine lettuce, croutons, and Parmesan mixture wilted in a bath of dressing made from eggs, olive oil, garlic, and anchovies.
Among our entrées, we tried the sirloin steak, an ample New York strip grilled to perfection and served with diced tomatoes in an extra-virgin olive oil, lemon juice, and balsamic vinegar. The side portion of ziti in a marinara sauce complemented the heartiness of the steak. The veal Milanese proved to be nothing more than a salad atop a piece of veal that had been flattened, breaded, pan-fried, and buried under mixed baby greens, radicchio, fresh tomatoes, and an olive oil-based vinaigrette. The menu indicated that the veal came with the pasta of the day, but it never arrived. We asked our waiter about the pasta and he said the menu was incorrect.
The "Spiedino," definitely my favorite selection of the evening, consisted of large shrimp and sea scallops rolled in Italian bread crumbs, skewered, grilled, and placed on a mound of creamy fettuccini Alfredo and finished with a lemon butter sauce and fresh parsley. Bravo! The Chicken Marsala a flattened chicken breast sautéed with mushrooms, topped with Marsala wine sauce, and coupled with Puccini's house pasta for the evening was not as successful. The ziti with a tomato-based sauce did not complement the Marsala wine, and the chicken seemed meant for something not quite as heavy, perhaps an angel hair pasta in a light olive oil.
For dessert, we had the cream puffs, three éclair-like puffs filled with a vanilla cream and smothered in chocolate mousse and whipping cream then finished with fresh strawberries. The cream puffs, although tasty, didn't spark the usual chocolate nerve in me. The lemon chess pie, served in a flaky crust, was not too sweet or too tart and came with with just the right-sized dollop of fresh whipped cream. The tiramisu was a happy union of sponge cakes soaked in liqueur, custard cream, and a healthy dusting of chocolate atop drizzled chocolate.
Reservations are not required at Puccini and Pasta, but I would suggest them, especially on the weekends. Call 528-9555. Hours are 11 a.m. until 11 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m. until midnight Friday and Saturday, and 11 a.m. until 10 p.m. Sunday. Lunch ranges from $6.95 to about $10. Appetizers, soups, and salads range from $4.50 to $8.95, entrées $8.95 to $18.95.