Thursday, November 23, 2000

Big success

Posted on Thu, Nov 23, 2000 at 4:00 AM

You may remember timpano as the drumlike pasta dish featured in the movie Big Night. The new restaurant Timpano does not offer that dish (pity), but it does feature fine food and some of the best service in town.

Timpano Italian Chophouse is a "concept" of the people who brought us TGI Friday's, starting two years ago in Rockville, Md., followed by a second location in Fort Lauderdale. The concept is "big- city dining" and the allure of New York nightclubs in the '50s, with Frank and Ella table-hopping while the rattle of martini shakers sets the beat.

Large, Coliseum-like letters around the room say, "The forbidden fruit is the sweetest," in Italian, while dark woods and indirect lighting accent an interior that makes you forget this isn't New York. Ask to sit on the small patio overlooking the lake, but do that on your second visit; first experience the room. The sound system, playing Sinatra-style jazz, is loud but perfectly tuned, so you can actually hear your dining companions when they speak.

Then there's the food. A motto on the wall, "good plain cooking," is reflected in the appetizers such as "smoky roasted mussels" (two dozen for $8.95), served on a skillet with butter, the natural taste of the shellfish being enough seasoning. Carpaccio ($7.95) is a platter of sushi-grade raw beef, sliced razor-thin and served with capers, shaved parmesan and bits of asparagus, sprinkled with lemon juice. The meat is so thin that the acid practically cooks it, like a ceviche.

This is a chop house, so entrees like filet mignon and 1-pound, center-cut pork chops are chargrilled at the open kitchen. "Veal saltimbocca" ($16.95), thin cutlets served with prosciutto ham and provolone in a subtle garlic and sage sauce, comes with an unusual and flavorful accompaniment, seasoned barley. Better saltimbocca can be had, but you'd have to go to Rome to get it. The "seafood stew" ($17.95) is a Tuscan delight of clams, mussels, scallops and calamari in a spicy-hot cream-tomato sauce.

There's a decent, smallish wine list, but more should be available by the glass.

I could write a separate review on the service. This place does it how it's supposed to be done: a delicate balance between absolute attention and invisibility, where your slightest need is anticipated and, if you leave for the rest room, your napkin is refolded. The wait staff is local (I asked), raising the bar for other area restaurants.

I suppose if I have to find flaw with Timpano it would be its location, tucked off I-4 on Sand Lake Road. I want this level of quality and extraordinary service closer to my house. Head here on your next big night.

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