Wednesday, August 16, 2000

Split personality

Posted on Wed, Aug 16, 2000 at 4:00 AM

When you go to a "restaurant and pizzeria," you don't normally expect two distinct environments. But that's exactly what Positano's has: a front room offering a boisterous, family-oriented pizzeria, and a back room featuring elegant, sophisticated Italian dining.

This dual identity can be confusing. Entering from the front, we found ourselves awash in family meals, televisions, busy pizza makers and ringing takeout phones. We had to make our way to the "middle" of the space to be transported into a more pleasant fine-dining room full of atmosphere.

Management makes the "restaurant" half feel cozy with mood lighting, fine background music and an impressive bar and wine list. The excellent service was friendly and helpful without being intrusive, and we were welcomed with a bread basket of cheese-flavored dinner rolls and a light, fresh-baked Italian roll with surprisingly good cracker crust.

For appetizers, my guest and I went in opposite directions: she had the "Positano bruschetta" ($6.25), which we found fairly average and lifeless. I had the delicious "warm chicken salad" ($8.95), an Asian-style dish featuring excessive amounts of shiitake mushrooms over a bed of mixed greens, sun-dried tomatoes, arugula, balsamic vinegar and nicely grilled chicken. It was a surprising, refreshing and original treat.

The shared menu offers a wide selection from seafood and chicken to innumerable sorts of pasta. We ordered both a "fine dining" entree as well as a New York-sized slice of white-cheese pizza ($15 per pie, $2.50 per slice) to sample from each side of this unique restaurant.

The pizza was thin-crusted and hand-rolled. "Pasta fagoli" ($3.50, if ordered separately) was served as a precursor to the entree, though it was more of a Tuscan-style white bean soup (with very little pasta) rather than a real pasta fagoli. We sensed a pattern: "ordinary" dishes were prepared rather matter-of-factly, while "specialties" received more care and attention.

This theory was confirmed with the expertly prepared and presented "veal saltimboca"($17.50). The veal was tender and perfectly done, the prosciutto topping was a nice complement, and the sage seasoning and fabulous white-wine sauce combined to make the dish a real delight.

For dessert, we tried both the chocolate Amaretto cheesecake ($5.50) and the unique "berrimisu," ($4.95), a fruity twist on the traditional tiramisu. The cheesecake relied too much on its toppings, but the "berrimisu" was exquisitely light and tasty -- the perfect complement to the natural "heaviness" of Italian cooking.

Positano's obviously takes great pride in their "specialities," but the "family side" seems a far more average experience. I recommend one-half of Positano's highly.


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