Let's say you're an Italian restaurant that has called the same Hurst location home for 26 years. And your longtime M.O. has been to create a red-carnation-in-a-vase, heavy flatware, romantically soft-lit dining atmosphere -- all as backdrop to the kind of intensely flavored Italian comfort food easily found in a classic, red-and-white-checked-tablecloth eatery in New York's Little Italy.
Then let's say this culinary mission has successfully dodged those smirking labels -- "tired," "complacent" or worse, "stodgy" -- often aimed at such elder statesmen restaurants. Well, La Bistro Italian Restaurant has run that gastronomic gantlet and, judging by one recent elaborate meal, can continue its run as one of Tarrant County's most enduring destinations for no-nonsense, tradition-bound Italian cooking.
Outside, La Bistro's main awnings, done in tomato-sauce red and the Italian flag's trio of hues, make it clear what awaits on the menu inside. Its interior boasts surprising aesthetic touches. The walls aren't merely painted in pastel hues but have been sponge-tinted for a stuccolike texture. Murals of curving bridges in Venice, Pisa's famous leaning tower and Rome's imposing Colosseum, would bring a smile to even the most grim-faced papal patron. The richly upholstered, high-back chairs might have come from a Vatican consignment sale. And all of this is set against the soundtrack of such familiar tunes as the Neapolitan Funiculi, Funicula.
One half-expects the ghost of Dean Martin to emerge, warbling Volare, as you dip into a shrimp scampi appetizer. No Dino apparition was needed to elevate the scampi ($7.95) or the fried calamari ($6.95). Four very large tail-on shrimp lolled around in a silken sauce redolent of garlic and wine. And while the calamari certainly could have used an extra minute or two in the fryer for a crispier burnish, it remained -- as with every La Bistro dish sampled -- the epitome of toothsome "al dente" preparation. Not a flaccid sinew was to be found in this pool of squid, ready to take a dip in its accompanying zesty tomato sauce.
Ravioli is often the predictive pasta dish for how the rest of an Italian meal unfolds. And what a delicious "weather vane" we found in La Bistro's lobster ravioli ($12.95). Generous cushions of ravioli all but burst with their rich mother lode of lobster and cheese. They sat in a lagoon of a silken pink cream sauce flecked with basil. This was the pasta equivalent of old money, never feeling the need to brag about its underlying wealth of flavor.
La Bistro's chicken carciofo ($14.95) was supremely balanced, careful not to let the delicate artichoke leaves drown in a cascade of button mushrooms, all of it swimming in a surprisingly complex, wine-based sauce.
For seafood lovers -- sticking with the restaurant's classical roots -- it's hard to go wrong with the clams Posillipo ($14.95), aka linguine and clams. Don't be alarmed by the seemingly stingy adornment of only six baby clams surrounding the thick tangle of linguine. Each bite of richly tomato-sauced pasta reveals countless bits of briny clam.
The veal marsala ($17.95) was the Sophia Loren of this dolce vita meal. The lusty marsala was so front and center it could have been the star of a wine tasting. It also imparted an intense color to the veal-stock-infused sauce enveloping the fork-tender pieces of veal. Each bite was close-your-eyes-and-smile sublime.
Desserts continued the meal's same comforting, traditional journey. Tiramisu ($4.95) first filled the nostrils with the perfume of a triple-shot espresso, and its ladyfinger and mascarpone interior was pudding-rich. Meanwhile, the cannoli ($4.95) provided a winning contrast between the crackle of the outer cookie and the unctuous pastry cream, accessorized with chocolate chips and sitting on a Jackson Pollock-like canvas of chocolate-sauce drips. Very sweet, perhaps, but inescapably decadent.
Though the "bistro" part of La Bistro rings more French than Italian, that moniker is about the only slightly askew aspect of a restaurant that has stubbornly maintained its exalted standards of down-home Italian cooking for close to three decades. That's as close to an eternity in the easy-come-easy-go restaurant business as there is.