By Ron Bechtol
"Big Night" diners who expect automatic meatballs would have an honorable out at Soprano. You can add them to your spaghetti order; they're a buck apiece. The grated parmesan sits on the table for you to add at will, so if excess is your idea of just enough, go for it.
There's something comforting about not being challenged by every plate put in front of you, and this is exactly where Soprano shines. You won't leave having conquered new culinary Himalayas, but neither will you leave hungry.
Some people, of course, are never satisfied. The same dining companion who won't let me order tentacles or babies of anything except vegetables, removed the breading from her portion of the carciofi parmigiana. I, on the other hand, found the coating to be light - and probably necessary to the successful frying of the unusually tender artichoke hearts. The delicate tomato sauce was fine, and not overwhelming in quantity. And though there was lots of melted cheese, it, too, seemed appropriate in the balance.
My squeamish companion allowed me to order the seafood salad after I pointed out that I could remove all of the offending calamari from her serving. There being no clams that night, we asked for extra mussels, though I suspect the overall appearance would have been the same regardless. So here's the picture: a bountiful array of mussels in the shell, shrimp (out of the shell), and baby squid, all hot atop a bed of shredded lettuce swimming in what seemed to be the steaming liquid from the mussels - or all the seafood. It was extremely odd at first blush, and the plate badly needed squeezed lemon, or a little of the balsamic vinegar provided separately. But after a little rumination, the whole thing sort of worked, largely due to the quality of the seafood, especially the calamari.
The spies who put me onto Soprano had been hooked initially by a superlative lentil soup, but the owner Sal didn't have it that day. Instead, the almost-equally vaunted Italian wedding soup was the day's special, and, I have to say, it almost makes the institution worth supporting. Baby meatballs bob about in this broth with beads of pearl barley, slivers of carrot, and leaves of just-cooked spinach, making for a dish that's a perfect marriage of light and hearty. Snap it up before the courts find something untoward about the combination.
The plate of pollo marsala (I couldn't order veal, remember) wasn't subject to soupiness, but sweetness - now that's another matter. Sure, I know most Marsala is sweet, but you really have to have an attuned tooth to go for the Soprano version; it's way over the top. The light red suggested by Sal for the entire meal, a 2001 Fontenella Umbria Rosso Goretti, was all but obliterated by the sauce. Tender chicken breast and good mushrooms couldn't save this one. But sides of spaghetti, one with butter and garlic, the other with tomato sauce, were paragons of pasta. We didn't eat much of either, but the texture was right on target, and the sauces just as they should be: simple and effective.
Soprano's tiramisu is made in-house and comes out fresh, light, and dusted with cocoa powder. This is a dessert in which Marsala is often used to good effect to soak the genoise or ladyfinger layers, but we detected none of it here. Perhaps a bit of espresso, and lots of whipped cream/mascarpone. Taken together, it was good by virtue of being understated - if anything with that much cream could be considered understated.
Lia, Sal's wife, is apparently the motivating force in the kitchen, and spies tell me it's well worth cultivating her acquaintance. You may get sent samples of her grilled peppers or her caponata, and I understand they are killer. Think family - and then seek to become part of it. •
` By Ron Bechtol `