Diner: The Italian Caper

Intrepid reviewer goes undercover for her latest assignment

The click-click sound of my high heels echoes ominously. The only other sound is my heart beating loud enough to wake the dead. I clutch my purse tightly, my mind's eye rifling the contents for potential weapons. I expertly remove the mascara wand without once looking down — a swift jab to the eye will be all that's necessary if Tony or Carmine has followed me.

The men's bathroom door at Scotti's swings open and a robust-looking patron emerges, fumbling with his fly. Flushed with Chianti, he grins, only mildly embarrassed by his passive exhibition, but I quickly turn away with a fixated gaze to an old photograph on the wall. I don't want him to remember me should there be any questions later. Only after I hear his last winded grunt at the top of the steps do I return to my objective at the end of the basement corridor: The white whale of a Westinghouse freezer that can hold enough veal for a season of scaloppini ... or Big Paulie.

Inhaling deeply I scan the hallway one more time, removing the key I have paid an arm, a leg and several fingers for ... none of them mine. The padlock gives way neatly as a cloud of frosty air streams out with a relieved sigh to reveal a cache of wrapped packages tied with butcher string. Some are rather large and oddly shaped — possibly veal shanks for Osso Buco ala Genovesi, but my intuition says Big Paulie is chillin'.

I re-lock the freezer with a smug grin; I can practically smell the ocean air and taste the Pina Coladas with the big stipend I'll get from CityBeat for cracking this case. But my work isn't quite done yet: I have to rejoin my guests upstairs for dinner as a restaurant reviewer. Quite a well-prepared cover, don't you think?

A quick fluff of the hair and a swipe of lipstick later, I'm back at our table of four in the crowded dining room. Saturday night has brought out the usual couples and groups of friends, but one long table in the center of the narrow dining room looks suspiciously like a few of Tony's goombahs with their French-manicured wives. Not surprisingly, the happy fondler I met in the basement is at this table.

I adjust my chair a bit too forcefully, knocking into his are-you-aware-the-'80s-is-over-haired mistress. (He is fondling her, too.) Of course, I give an Oscar performance of apology when she spills her Chianti on the table: It's the least I can do to send over two more bottles of wine. She'll be keeping him busy for a while.

Bowls of minestrone and garlic bread have arrived at our table. My guests give thumbs up on the soup. "Wow, that certainly is garlic bread!" they say, referring to the quantity of minced garlic adorning each slice. They happily chat away about an upcoming trip, unsuspecting of my undercover mission.

I jot a few notes down in a small book, part of my ruse as a reviewer. Soup bowls are whisked away and replaced with small bowls of Scotti's Italian Salad; both the soup and salad come with each dinner. We're quizzical about the bright red and green decor atop the salads. Closer inspection reveals them to be dyed green sprouts and red cabbage. How festive. Even though it's shredded iceberg lettuce, we all agree that the Italian dressing is very good and, yes, very garlicky.

Garlic again is the star of our four dinners: Scaloppini ala Marsala ($20), veal with Marsala wine and mushroom sauce; Rigatoni with Marinara ($13.50); Veal Cutlet ala Parmigiana ($18.50) and Linguine con Vongole ($16.50), with olive oil, lemon sauce and clams. We all enjoy our dinners as Luciano Pavarotti serenades, and I keep a well-trained eye on da boys. Dinner is followed by coffee and cannoli. The sugar in the cannoli overpowers the flavor but, after the amount of garlic I ate, I welcome the balance.

Tony's boys are getting up to leave, so I suggestively rub my date's leg under the table to hurry him along. Jeez ... men: That one always works. As he helps me on with my coat, he lightly nibbles my ear. I can tell his idea of how the evening is going to end is a lot different from mine. I smile dispassionately at him and hope he doesn't get in the way of the rest of my job. My backyard is getting full. ©

Go: 919 Vine St., Downtown

Call: 513-721-9484

Hours: Lunch: Tuesday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Dinner: Tuesday-Thursday 5-8 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 5-9 p.m. Closed 1:30-5 p.m. for "Orario di riposo" as well as Sundays and Mondays

Prices: Moderate to Expensive

Red Meat Alternatives: Big menu with a lot of choices

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