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Tool of the Trade 

Even on date night, our critic finds cause for complaint

While it wasn't technically Valentine's Day, the evening was intended as a romantic night out. For starters, it was the rare occasion when the wife and I were dining out just for fun — in fact, we didn't even know where we'd end up. The plan was to head to Little Italy and tuck into a cute little Italian joint for some pasta and vino. What's more romantic than that?

The first place that caught our eye was Mia Bella — My Beauty! Could there be a more auspicious name for celebrating romance?

The restaurant occupies the corner storefront that was previously home to Corbo's Bakery. We had never been there, but from what we could see through the glass, it looked cozy, cheerful, and about half full on a Friday night. I swung open the front door for m'lady, followed her in, and requested a table for two.

"Do you have a reservation?" asked the young hostess.

We did not, but with at least five open tables in sight, we figured it wouldn't be much of an issue.

Ah, but all those tables were reserved, the hostess explained. Would we care to eat at the bar?

Normally, I'd have no problem with that. But this was a date, dammit, and we were going to dine like civilized folk. I told the hostess we would have a glass of wine at the bar and wait until a table became available.

Less than five minutes in, I could see that things were going irreversibly sour on us. Fresh from the dishwasher, the glass holding my red wine was hot, giving its contents the taste and feel of grape soup.

Given ample free time to idly peer around the room, we noticed with some disappointment that the plants in the place were fake. And when a busboy delivered a plate of bread and butter for us, that kindness just led to other problems.

My wife, starving like me, reached for a piece. What could she have been thinking?

"Don't eat it!" I barked. "They'll think we're eating at the bar."

After 20 minutes of waiting against a backdrop of open tables, I started to fume. Then I got to planning. Taking my phone into the john so I wouldn't be heard, I called Etna, a restaurant down the block. "Yes," the man said, "we can seat you right away."

After devouring all the bread, we paid the check. Miraculously, a table opened up at that very moment — but no matter. On our way out the door I muttered to an old woman who may or may not have been the owner, "Next time, you should try seating customers right away."

A lovely stroll down the block landed us at Etna. In the spirit of full disclosure, I confessed to my wife that years back, when the space belonged to Valerio's, I had made this the site of many a first date.

Predictably, she could not have cared less.

"Sit wherever you'd like," said the man as we walked in, instantly righting the night with one warm greeting.

We chose a table in the back, as far from Mia Bella as we could get. Despite the odd, cheesy photo of Mount Etna — an active volcano in Sicily — the room was as romantic as I recalled. A tiny wooden bar, a few tables, and low-slung ceilings combined to form a dollhouse-like eatery, where whispered coos and murmurs almost seem required.

We enjoyed Italian red wine, lemony grilled calamari, and garlic-steamed mussels by candlelight, and the evening had, in fact, blossomed into the love fest we'd imagined. As a fresh snow began to fall outside, we could hear the chef pounding the crap out of a piece of veal.

Ah, romantic indeed!

It wasn't all smooth sailing, mind you. There was the rough patch when, pulling a large shrimp from its butterflied shell, I splattered Mrs. T's face with tomato sauce. That, and the fact that my veal really had been pounded to death — so much so that it lay in tatters on my plate.

"Is it always mincemeat like this?" I asked our patient but puzzled server. He assured me that yes, it was completely normal for a veal cutlet to look like it had been run over by a monster truck.

To make up for the completely normal smashed veal, the kitchen sent out tiramisu — "compliments of the chef."

Contentedly licking whipped cream off her lips, my wife pointed out the obvious: In the face of provocation, even assurances of romance aren't enough to keep a critic from finding fault.

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