Thursday, June 12, 2003

For the love of it

Posted on Thu, Jun 12, 2003 at 4:00 AM

If you're thinking about opening a restaurant, heed the advice of Wilfren Giraldo: "This is a business for people who love it. Cooks, waiters -- you can't get a waiter from Wendy's or a Burger King, these are not waiters."

Wilfren himself can be found cruising between tables at Wilfredo's, resplendent in tuxedo and bow tie, checking enjoyment levels. Wilfredo's is the new Italian ristorante that has possessed -- like a benevolent spirit -- the location of "the" old ristorante, Gargi's, which had been a romantic go-to spot for many years. Giraldo, who has been working in Italian restaurants for almost 40 years, is the owner.

"I love this food," he says. "It's easy for me, it's all I know."

Love -- of food and customers -- certainly has to come into play when the room only fits 12 tables. This is the kind of restaurant where people come for special occasions, an atmosphere where a table of women next to me celebrating a birthday spent an hour talking about books, where a dating couple snug against the window held hands while they ate. ("I picked this spot so you'll have to turn around to watch me leave the room," she said, and several people laughed. It's that kind of place.)

Chef Antonio Panini makes slow-simmered sauces from scratch, which highlight most of the dishes. The marinara atop "pollo alla florentina" ($14.95) was sweet with plum tomatoes and bits of onion, the breaded-chicken cutlet hammered so thin it filled the plate, with a layer of eggplant (rather than the traditional spinach) and draped with mozzarella cheese. Slightly crunchy at the thin edges, tender all through, the chicken was splendid.

The nature of slow-cooked sauce means most dishes have a dark taste. The lasagna ($11.95) is a brick of pasta, that thick sauce encompassing heaps of finely ground meat and at least two cheeses that I could taste, maybe three. And eggplant parmigiana ($12.95) added low-moisture ricotta to baked eggplant and cheese for a surprisingly hefty dish.

There's a large selection of veal dishes, and if you're not a fan of rich tomato sauce, the veal piccata, with lemon, wine and capers, would be an alternative.

The appetizer list offers baked clams ($7.95), chopped with Parmesan, breadcrumbs and toothy bits of garlic, little curly garlic-soaked shrimps scampi ($8.95), and an "antipasto Caldi" platter of the aforementioned plus superb mussels and tiny servings of eggplant ($8.95).

Gargi's, you should know, is building a structure directly across the street, with a view of Lake Ivanhoe. Two Italian restaurants so close should make for interesting dining choices, now that the old place has good competition.

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