If you've seen one bruschetta appetizer, have you seen them all?
No offense to toothsome tomatoes everywhere, but the ubiquitous starter, as well as its usually bland sisters like mussels marinara and fried calamari, are too often uninventive preambles to a meal.
That may be precisely why Macaluso's, the upstart Forest Park Boulevard entry that opened in January, shouldn't be so quickly dismissed. One look at its lunch and dinner menus, and you'll find all of your Italian friends here, from antipasto to ziti, but the experience is more pleasant surprise party than high school reunion.
Speaking of catching up, local diners may remember Marco's Italian Ristorante, the Watauga favorite that changed hands a few years ago. If you do, you'll be pleased to know that restaurant's original chef, Zeke Jusufi, is the same man behind Macaluso's. After a stint managing Fortuna Italian Restaurant on Camp Bowie, Jusufi decided to re-enter the fray when Grady's vacated this space that once housed famed Le Chardonnay years ago.
And it is a stellar, if not loaded, locale. Just steps away from where much-loved Ruffino's once ruled, chef and co-owner Jusufi is hoping to reclaim that clientele at his bright, window-filled restaurant. The dining room has a holdover sort of elegance from its predecessors, despite the checkered tablecloths that denote a bit more downscale an experience.
Big surprise -- we skipped the more obvious appetizers in lieu of the garlic bread with cheese and tomatoes ($4.50), a foot-long Italian loaf liberally topped with mozzarella, fresh tomatoes and oregano. The combination of the warm cheese and raw tomatoes was a refreshing turn on the standard garlic bread.
The cold antipasto salad ($6.95) looked innovative with its combination of seemingly disparate ingredients like cherry and sun-dried tomatoes, olives, cabbage and prosciutto, but it ultimately came undone. The prosciutto was too one-note to hold the plate together. Another meat, like salami, could have added dimension. But the Italian dressing was outstanding -- well seasoned and with an ideal balance of acid.
The standout of the night was the baked eggplant parmigiana ($8.95), a creative take on the tired fried-veg-and-cheese territory. Jusufi smartly renders flavor from the eggplant by not breading it. The result is a tender, almost creamy-sweet eggplant enveloped in cheese and sauce.
And that sauce -- that sauce! -- is simple, and thankfully, not the tangy variety that is frequently found at neighborhood joints. It held up in the baked ziti Siciliano ($7.95), a ricotta-and-mozzarella marriage atop al dente pasta.
Other dishes shined as well, including the spaghetti and meatballs ($8.95) and the shrimp scampi Imperiale ($16.95), the latter a lemony rendition, albeit accompanied not by pasta but by steamed (and unfortunately mushy) broccoli. Next time, we'll order a side of linguine, all the better to absorb the luscious sauce.
Jusufi has East Coast roots (small world -- his relatives once were neighbors with Ruffino's co-owner Franco Albanese's family back in the day in Connecticut), and it shows. The food here is authentic in a New Jersey neighborhood trattoria kind of way. And that's exactly where the Macaluso's name comes from; it was the name of the restaurant where Jusufi worked in a small town near Patterson.
The staff is warm and congenial, a nice garnish to the food here. The restaurant just earned its liquor license, so we didn't get a chance to try the wine list; we will next time. As with my beloved red pepper flakes, which are usually within arm's reach, the wine wasn't missed.
This food is satisfying enough, and that's saying something.