I'm generally very empathic when visiting a restaurant during its infancy. Having opened a couple myself, I know it takes a few weeks for most to work out the knots and find their rhythm. On the other hand, if a restaurant opens with a high-end menu (most entrées priced above the market median) and a well appointed dining room, expectations will often match higher prices. When prices are above the median (in Cincinnati, that means $15-$23 for entrées), one assumes a restaurant will offer exceptional food, service and atmosphere — a dining experience.
Most of us will forgive atmosphere if food and service hold up. Some of us are forgiving of less-than-polished service if food and atmosphere are strong. It's harder to swallow mediocre food, even if service and atmosphere reign supreme. It becomes a value question: Is it worth the ticket price if it's not a sensorial experience? After all, when you choose a higher-end restaurant, isn't that what you're expecting — an experience that satiates the senses? Does price matter if it's memorable?
That said, I'll relate my experience with a new Italian restaurant in Oakley.
Andiamo! — Italian for "Let's go!" — sits in a fairly new retail center on Madison Road, housing an antique mall and the relocated furniture and design store, Voltage, in addition to the restaurant. As an enthusiast of contemporary design, I was immediately taken with the interior — first by a sleek bar illuminated with unusual hanging lights resembling upside-down shot glasses. The dining room is large and smartly divided by a partial wall to bring some intimacy to an otherwise big, square space. Decor is modern clean lines, black-and-white with splashes of bright color from Italian glass exhibited in small, backlit alcoves and warmer hues in some of the upholstered chairs. Tables are clothed in white, set with contemporary silverware and folded napkins. Three tables are semicircular booths lining the back wall with full view of activities in the dining room — great for people watching.
This is where we were seated and greeted immediately by a staff taht was amiable although still a little green: Most of our questions were answered with "I don't know, but I'll find out." The menu looks impressive, traditionally divided for an Italian menu into Antipasti (appetizers), Insalate (salads), Zuppa (soup), Pasta (usually considered a "segundo" or second course), Carne (pork, lamb and beef), Vitello (veal), Pesce (fish and shellfish) and Pollo (chicken). Prices are on the high end for the Cincinnati market. Of 31 entrées listed on the menu, 16 are priced $23-$37; the remainder average $18.
The three of us chose to share the featured appetizer recommended by our server: Eggplant Parmigiano ($6.95). Very simply prepared, with three small rounds of thinly sliced, nicely seasoned and fried eggplant layered with a dollop of marinara and cheese. The server suggested extra marinara on the side, which we agreed it needed. We each ordered the House Salad ($2.95): a generous helping of field greens accompanied by a sweet and tangy, house-made blueberry vinaigrette. Entrées came before our salads were finished, jamming the table as we scurried to finish. But I consider this one of the timing knots to work out and certainly preferable to the extreme of having to wait too long while consuming several baskets of bread.
A Vegetable Lasagna ($18.95), Linguine con Salmone ($19.95), and Pollo Fra Diavolo ($19.95) were our main course choices. The chicken dish was the only one standing out. The lasagna, while certainly not disagreeable, was nothing memorable and small in portion. The linguine, advertised as tossed in a vermouth cream tomato sauce with asparagus, and the salmon entrée were more of the same: Nothing bad, nothing great. The salmon was cooked well, but the sauce was mediocre and the asparagus was nearly inconsequential, a few thin slices tossed with the pasta. The breast of chicken, baked in an asiago chili cream sauce with shallots and peppers, elicited a "Mmm, good!" from my companion, but this is a guy who is usually very generous with adjectives when describing food.
Each dish, from appetizer to main course, was "home-style" in presentation: No elaborate garnish or architectural arrangements. I normally appreciate the sparseness of plates — I'll trade presentation for flavor any day — but I found myself wishing for even a sprig of parsley to offset the medium-quality flavors.
Back to the argument for expectation and value: While nothing at Andiamo was in any way bad, was the service (good) and atmosphere (lovely) enough to offset the food (so-so) with a price tag of $155 (including tip) for three people? Would the experience, which was pleasant but not memorable, be enough for us to return?
If Andiamo were long established, I would say definitely no. Given that it's a 'ristorante bambino' with potential for growth, I think they deserve another visit. In the meantime, I hope they'll raise their quality to the level of their prices. ©
Go: 3235 "A" Madison Road, Oakley
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Payment: Major credit cards.
Red Meat Alternatives: Pasta, salads, fish