3845 4th Ave.
by Steve Mayberry
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, ÒPeople do not deserve to have good restaurants, they are so pleased with Italian.Ó Well, sort of.
I pass the crowded patio on Fourth Avenue every day, but having a strong aversion to Italian restaurants with goofy namesÑI never considered eating at Arrivederci. Then my latest date mentioned it was her favorite place to eat. It was convenient, and as Emerson also said, ÒAlways do what you are afraid to do,Ó so I agreed to meet her there for an early dinner.
We sat in uncomfortable wooden chairs at a ridiculously small patio table, apparently on loan from BarbieÕs Dream House. We had to annex the next table just to manage our drinks, bread and the accompanying ramekin of bitter celery, carrot and eggplant stew. The oft-reheated bread is soft and passable only for a minute or so, until it cools and dries into brittle pucks.
The menus are inexplicably shaped like envelopes and are supplemented with a Òspecial sheet,Ó a photocopied and laminated list of three-dozen or so entries. The only indications that it might be a list of specials are 1) that it is hand-written, and 2) the prices are illegible.
ÒNot very special, are they?Ó she said.
Our indifferent waiter apparently worked under the misconception that he was in a French and/or good restaurant. (In my world, the sentence, ÒLet me know when youÕre readyÓ is grounds for a fork through the cummerbund.) My date wanted a bottle of merlot. Twice, the waiter came back empty-handed from the wine cellar. I gave up and switched to a Sangiovese.
The waiter cranked an either empty or defective peppershaker over the pile of wet lettuce that was our Caesar salad, to no discernable effect. The only flavor therein came from the anchovies I requested. Her favorite appetizer, a reasonably fresh calamari served over spinach with a light tomato sauce, was not bad, although the sauce did have a cheap-tomato bite. The grilled shrimp suffered from that same acidity (indeed, almost the exact same sauce). And here, the production-line kitchen had egregiously overcooked the shellfish, turning them into rubbery little knots. The stuffed Portobello mushroom would have been grounds, in many countries, for retribution killings. The tough and slimy mushroom was stuffed with a huge mound of what tasted like canned breadcrumbs and salt. I picked around the edges for purely professional reasons.
We split a bright yellow seafood risotto from the ludicrously long specials list. Again, the shrimp were overcooked, and the anemic scallops were dull and flavorless. It is a tribute to my indifference that the kitchen could take so many things I loveÑshrimp, scallops, asparagus, risottoÑand turn them into such a thoroughly unappealing dish. Blindfolded, I would have only been able to tell the difference between the risotto and the tiramisu by the fact that the tiramisu was cold. Oh, I exaggerate. The tiramisu also tastes faintly of chocolate.
ÒI canÕt believe this is your favorite restaurant,Ó I snorted.
ÒI didnÕt say it was my favorite,Ó she muttered.
Yikes. I am such a dickhead. I had been in hypercritical mode all night, not realizing that she might take offense. I scrambled to make amends and suggested we walk a couple blocks east and check out my favorite spot in the neighborhood.
A year ago, I gave Crush (530 University Ave., Hillcrest) a mixed review for some great stuff (mostly appetizers), some so-so (mostly entrees). They have since switched chefs, gone to an all-appetizer menu, and become my new absolute favorite spot to grab a bite, or in this case, save a date. The hours are reasonable (4 p.m. to midnight), drinks are hip, and the atmosphere is funky. I do occasionally wish theyÕd turn down the funk, as conversations can be difficult. (And that is the one and only thing they have in common with Arrivederci.)
Most importantly, the food is great to fantastic. For adventurous starters, order the gorgonzola-stuffed dates. The seared scallops over tomato risotto restored my faith in both scallops and risotto. And when youÕre ready for dessert, try the crÂme brulee topped with whipped cream.
TheyÕre so good we almost donÕt deserve them.
ÒTo different minds, the same restaurant is a hell, and a heaven.Ó Contact food critic Ralph Òthe MalphÓ Emerson at cityeat@SD citybeat.com.