Danny Boy's Italian Eatery is the kind of joint that food fans want to love. Small, friendly, and denim-casual, with an ambiance that's one part pub, one part diner, and one part shrine to the Chairman of the Board, this 55-seater oozes personality from the moment guests walk through the faux-vine-covered screen door until they stagger out, hours later, armed with a towering load of leftovers. It's too bad that the food, characterized by diet-defying blends of carbs and fats, doesn't make as strong an impression.
Rob and Renee Grendow, who opened Danny Boy's in 1990 (the Irish-as-a-shamrock name was inherited from the previous occupant), have divided their shoe-boxy room into two distinct areas. The first is a foyer-like waiting area, where patrons can play checkers or backgammon while downing a Dortmunder Gold (the restaurant doesn't accept reservations). Wait accomplished, they ascend two steps to a cheerful dining area, where tables are decked out with sealed bottles of balsamic vinegar and olive oil, unlit oil lamps, and decks of playing cards. (On Wednesdays, you can cut the cards with your server for a chance to score a free round of freshly baked breadsticks.) Throughout, the decorative clutter is ubiquitous, with snake plants and silk flowers . . . neon beer signs and a leather bomber jacket . . . two televisions broadcasting sporting events . . . industrial-sized cans of Old El Paso jalapeño peppers, stacked up like empty Buds in a frat-house window . . . and a tall glass pitcher, filled with red-and-white peppermint candies.
But despite the far-ranging kitsch, the room's decorative focal point is Rob Grendow's collection of Sinatra memorabilia, a carefully curated display of album covers, movie posters, magazine photos, chalk drawings, and concert announcements, including an eye-catching poster from a July 4, 1947 concert with Sinatra and Tommy Dorsey at the Dunes Casino in Las Vegas. Listen long enough, and you'll eventually hear what seems like Ol' Blue Eyes' entire discography playing in the background, interspersed with tunes from America and The Beatles. Sinatra trivia games are featured every Tuesday and Thursday night; answer correctly and win more breadsticks. And the eight-page menu -- an overwhelming and sometimes redundant collection of pizzas, pasta, calzones, pierogi, subs, ribs, wraps, salads, and assorted bar noshes -- is loaded with photos of and references to the crooner and his Rat Pack buddies.
Of course, this is just the set design. The restaurant is allegedly all about the food: often-wacky combos of starches, brought forth on oversized platters, in enormous portions that would make even a stevedore blanch. Consider, for instance, mountainous servings of cheese pierogi topped with "white" chicken-and-navy-bean chili, sautéed onions, and jalapeño-spiked sour cream; dense cheese ravioli mixed with tomato-basil cream sauce and six different cheeses, then piled onto a pizza crust and baked; and a half-slab of barbecued pork ribs, slathered in sauce and slapped down on what seems like a pound of buttered fettuccine.
And what prices! A single entrée (often accompanied by a salad and, you guessed it, breadsticks) is typically enough for two or more to share, and prices are generally under $15. In fact, it wouldn't be difficult for an entire family to eat -- until their eyeballs, not to mention their bellies, bulged -- for no more than $40 and take home enough leftovers to see them through the next several days. My kids, and then my backyard budgies, were eating -- what else? -- breadsticks for a week.
But amid this orgy of food, doesn't anyone in the kitchen stop to ask, "How does it taste?" Take our entrée of lemon-pepper fettuccine, for example, tossed with grilled chicken, broccoli, zucchini, red peppers, and pesto sauce. While the chicken was well trimmed and seasoned (no gristle!), and the veggies were a sight better than Green Giant, the pasta had been boiled nearly into paste, and the pesto sauce was merely a rumor. Then there were the Buffalo Toes -- a passel of boneless, breaded chicken tenders, dipped in wing sauce and served with celery, blue cheese dressing, and those unbelievably ubiquitous breadsticks. The wing sauce was fiery but one-dimensional, and the limp chicken tenders were unpleasantly soggy, falling apart as we tried to lift them with a fork.
Beneath a mild white chili, leaden pierogi had us yawning, despite the traces of jalapeño. Barbecued ribs in a sweet-and-tangy sauce lacked the textural tension of crisp, smoky char. And plump Buffalo-style chicken wings (ordered mild) were tongue-blistering hot, but missing the buttery afterbite and authentic crunch of the real thing.
To wash it all down, there is a predictable array of soft drinks, a small list of domestic and imported beers and microbrews (including a variety of Great Lakes Brewing Company products), and about a dozen mostly West Coast wines, generally priced at around $4.50 per glass or $15 by the bottle. On the plus side, the list includes wines by the San Joaquin Valley's relatively new McManis Family Vineyards, whose value-priced Cabs, Chards, and Merlots are garnering raves.
If you're going to eat at Danny Boy's, then, order a McManis vintage and stick with a pizza -- where the kitchen unquestionably does its best work. Thin-crusted Rat Pack Pizzas are varnished with olive oil or salad dressings. Soft-crust Award-Winning Pizzas are crowned with the usual mushrooms, pepperoni, black olives, and the like. Specialty Pizzas come piled with everything from hummus and feta to pineapple and sweet peas. Wrap the pizza dough around sausage, meatballs, or breaded chicken -- along with go-withs like lettuce, tomato, and mayo -- and you have a Foldover. Cover the dough with pierogi, pasta, or scrambled eggs, and you have a Baked Pasta Pie. (You get the idea.)
One Award-Winning Pizza, for example, was delightfully drowning in mushrooms, nutty cheese, and mild, lean pepperoni. A calzone, packed with black olives and sausage, was not quite zesty, but its flavor profile heightened considerably when we dipped into a side order of chunky, sweet-tart pizza sauce. And a vegetarian California Pizza, with ricotta, fresh mushrooms, tiny broccoli florets, tomato, and red pepper, finished with a blend of cheddar, mozzarella and provolone, was perky and bright.
But here's the irony: When I was a child, one of my guilty pleasures was a late-night spaghetti sandwich -- saucy strings of leftover pasta slapped between two crusty slices of Italian bread (sometimes with a slice of mozzarella, or a layer of margarine, for added luxe) -- smuggled into my bedroom and devoured in the dark. Imagine my surprise to find that the Grendows have captured the essence of that childish passion in the form of the unlikely Angelhair Veggie Pie: a thick, heavy mélange of angelhair pasta, olive oil, pizza sauce, cheese, sweet peas, red pepper, and mushrooms. It's a texture thing, I think, that makes this carbo combo so compelling -- the globby, mouth-filling comfort of starch against starch, lubricated by the slickness of cheese. It was riveting to bite into a slice and suddenly find myself back among my childhood memories. But, once the flashback faded, I gave thanks that my tastes have matured -- and that a spaghetti sandwich, frankly, is no longer my idea of good eating.
Diners who prize quality over quantity may wish Danny Boy's palate would grow up, too.