Diner: Uncommon Italian

Biagio's survives on more than personality alone

One of my favorite food fantasies involves a movie theater, a thunderstorm and a plate of steaming pasta. The camera zooms in on our happy couple as they trip out of a matinee. The clouds break open overhead, so they lock arms and duck into a tiny storefront for cover. Enter Biagio's Bistro. Alright, maybe Mr. Husband shows me too many old movies, but Biagio's cozy, softly lit interior could easily fit into this Hollywood scene.

Along with its inviting atmosphere, Biagio's offers something pretty uncommon in a casual restaurant: fresh pasta dishes. Given the house specialty and the owner's thick accent, you'd think the menu mix would be straightforward Italian, but it's always been a bit schizophrenic, offering sides like tabbouli ($3.50), hummus ($6) and Waldorf salad ($3.50). These options never made sense to me, but then again they might be good sellers for the lunch crowd.

There are also appetizers like artichoke dip ($6), soups ($3.50), salads ($6) and sandwiches ($7.50).

While the menu has stayed intact since the restaurant opened in 1999, other things have changed over the years.

Biagio expanded his dining room, and the restaurant now has a full bar. In the old days you'd bring a bottle of wine with you for dinner. Even though the full bar is more convenient (and more profitable), I miss this part of the experience — it always made the evening a little more charming.

Of course, charisma isn't something Biagio's is short on, thanks to the owner's larger-than-life personality. I've never been to the restaurant when Biagio wasn't there, concocting your meal in the skillets on five gas burners in his version of an open kitchen, talking with his mom and flirting with the single girls in the room: "What, you got no boyfriend yet?"

In many arenas his bravado wouldn't play well, but in a world of celebrity chef owners, Emeril better fine-tune his "Bam!" because Biagio's breathing down his New Orleans neck.

But a restaurant does not survive on personality alone. What comes out of those five pans is pretty amazing — with just a handful of ingredients, Biagio creates a variety of flavors.

The night we arrived we put his creativity to the test. Sitting across from his open kitchen Mr. Husband said, "No wheat and no dairy." Biagio looked stumped for a minute but then shrugged and whipped up a beautiful plate of sautéed vegetables and tilapia ($16). Craving the flavors of spring, I chose the Pesto Pasta with Shrimp ($17), and our friend went with the Fettuccini Alfredo with Tilapia ($17).

The entrées come with soup or a salad made with chopped fresh tomato (strikingly red for this time of year), red onion, green and black olives and a sweet vinaigrette. The soup that evening was a cheesy minestrone with pieces of homemade pasta and large chunks of vegetables. While not particularly flavorful, it was thick and satisfying on a cold night.

As I finished one last olive from Mr. Husband's salad, the garlic from our entrées hit the pans, and the scent rose as the piped-in opera reached a crescendo. I'm superstitious, so I took this as a good sign, even though the combination of Italian cooking and opera has been forever ruined by Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction.

The tilapia was delicately cooked, and the alfredo dish — what my mother fondly refers to as a heart attack on a plate — was lovingly inhaled by our friend, the butter-and-cream sauce clinging to the thick noodles.

The pesto pasta was a bit of a conundrum. I was expecting noodles flecked with basil and the flowery taste of olive oil. I should have read the menu more closely. Apparently Biagio uses cream in his pesto. It was tasty, just not what I expected or wanted that night.

The last item on my list for why to go to Biagio's is desserts — homemade and lurking in a display case you must pass on the way to your table. There are the usual Italian desserts, tiramisu and cannoli, but he also offers caramel apple pie, cream pies and cake.

Since we obviously didn't meet our daily quota of saturated fat with dinner, we had the coconut cream pie and mini cream puffs covered in chocolate (each $5). The pie, with a chocolate cookie crust, had a very strong coconut flavor, making others I've tried seem wimpy in comparison. And while the taste was good, we didn't like the texture. Biagio doesn't use pastry cream, so it's a bit like eating a plate of whipped cream.

The cream puffs however, were moan-inspiring. The towers of five or six mini puffs were liberally covered in a thick layer of melted dark chocolate and devoured in seconds.

My advice is not to wait for the next thunderstorm. Duck into this bistro any time if you want a satisfying meal and neighborhood restaurant experience. ©

Biagio's Bistro
Go: 308 Ludlow Ave., Clifton

Call: 513-861-4777

Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Saturday

Prices: Moderate

Payment: Major credit cards accepted

Red Meat Alternatives: Pasta galore

Accessibility: A few steps at entrance

Grade: A-

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