SOMETIMES THE STARS align just right over a restaurant and the result is magic. Sometimes they don't. My first meal at Machiavelli Ristorante was one of the former: miraculous, unforgettable. OK, I forget what I ate—carbonara maybe, or veal saltimbocca—but it was something I'd had a thousand times before and never like this. For wine, I'd placed myself in the hands of my waiter, who brought over a glass of something that transfixed my palate and rendered the food even more ethereal. It was a crowded night—I was yet to discover that it was rarely otherwise at Machiavelli—but the press of flesh lent an electric urban energy to the experience. And that food. . . . Miriani's
2208 N 45th, 634-3436
Tue-Thu 5-10, Fri-Sat 5-11, Sun 5-10
MC, V; full bar Cut to last week. "Did you hear that Machiavelli's chef just bought Miriani's?" my friend breathed through the phone. Less than three hours later I was there. A skinny joint on 45th in Wallingford, Miriani's has been around awhile under the ownership of a couple of other Machiavelli partners. Last fall, Rene Perez, the Guatemalan-born chef who had come up from San Francisco 10 years earlier to open Machiavelli, decided he wanted a place of his own; he bought them out. He left the menu alone—a list of traditional Italian pastas, baked pastas, pizzas, and meats similar to Machiavelli's—and installed his sister Blanca in the kitchen, reserving for himself the job of front man. As such Perez is charming, roving through the dining room welcoming newcomers and greeting regulars like old friends. It's a casual, no-nonsense place as traditional and family-oriented as Machiavelli is stylish and funky; there's something vaguely reminiscent of a roadside spaghetti house in the decor. We began with an order of bruschetta ($4.95): four crunchy bread rounds thickly gilded with olive oil and topped with a sprightly mix of tomatoes, garlic, and basil. Flavorful and fresh, this made a grand beginning. Salads came next: one the house salad with garbanzos, croutons, and a beet wedge in a balsamic vinaigrette ($3); the other a classic caesar ($4). The first was fine, if slightly hard of crouton. (Come to think of it, the bruschetta bases were a mite challenging, just as the bread that came in a basket along with balsamic olive oil for dipping was 12 or so hours past its prime.) The Caesar was also fine; heavy on the lemon and anchovy. It was a little like eating fish and chips. For dinner, my companion ordered the paglia e fieno ($9.25): spinach and egg fettuccine with prosciutto, mushrooms, and shallots in a cream sauce. Pleasant enough to eat, this dish nevertheless lacked the kind of subtlety of flavors that mark great pastas. It simply tasted of mushrooms, all the way to the bottom. My entr饠was one of the two daily specials: roasted leg of lamb in garlic and rosemary sauce ($12.95). It was a lovely sauce, rich and resonant. With it came spinach and carrot spears, both nicely done, and a crunchy little risotto cake that was far too bland. Sadly, the lamb was overcooked. Nice thin slices that ought to have been tender and flavorful were only flavorful. We finished with dessert. Diplomatico ($3.75), like tiramisu but with chocolate mousse in place of the mascarpone, was the better of the two, rich and fluffy, but inferior to its ubiquitous cousin. Vanilla bean cheesecake ($3.75) simply wasn't enough: not enough flavor, not enough of a slice. We left underwhelmed. ON OUR SECOND visit we split a thin-crust garlic and clam pizza ($6.95) to start, and immediately our mood began to brighten. The crust was chewy and delicious; the topping a garlic party, with flavor bursting out of each bite. The bread was also fresher this time around. Roasted butternut squash lasagne ($9.50) landed in front of my companion, and it was lovely. Perez's homemade spinach lasagne noodles gave this dish a bewitching texture; these were layered with the sweet squash, caramelized onion, fontina cheese, good tomato sauce, and a swoony bechamel. And the portion was huge. Fettuccine alla gamberoni ($14.95) also featured homemade pasta in a wine-butter sauce frisky with lemon. In it came jumbo prawns, nicely grilled, wrapped in pancetta and sage. What an intriguing flavor interplay these little packages held! Alas, my palate wanted to be this interested in the sauce as well, but too much lemon drowned out the other flavors and compromised the subtlety. This would appear to be an unfortunate pattern in Miriani's kitchen. Far be it from me to suggest that Rene take over the toque; suffice it to say I miss his flair. He is doing some interesting stuff in the front of the house: Word is that on Saturday nights his pals from Seattle Opera drop by to regale diners with arias. But service hasn't been so stellar on our visits that Rene is proving essential as host. It's folksy, more like, with a sweetie pie of a waiter who might join you at your table to take your order or share with you his recipe for spinach pasta sauce, but altogether forget to refill your water glass. My advice to Wallingfordians: Drop in from time to time to keep an eye on this talented owner's progress with his new property. Everyone else can safely skip Mariani's until they hear different. For now, it's not quite worth the time it takes to find a parking place.