It's the middle-of-the-road places that call for heavy lifting. For every good quality, there's a bad one to report. For each compliment, there's a pan. Worst of all are the so-so spots with loyal followings: Discount their popular appeal, and you're an elitist pig; ignore the shortcomings, and you're hopelessly naive.
Which brings us to D'Agnese's Italian Restaurant, Franco Boffice's Seven Hills institution that has been drawing crowds since 1989 -- and not without a few good reasons. First off, D'Agnese's main-course portions are generous, and prices, while not inconsequential, are generally no more than moderate. In fact, stick to pasta, the complimentary Italian bread, and an ample à la carte salad ($3.50 with entrées), and a couple can get in and out for around $30, leftovers included.
Settled on a small rise, well removed from busy Broadview Road, the restaurant can be hard to spot. On the other hand, the slightly isolated location offers plenty of safe, free parking, along with a large party room and a long, narrow patio for seasonal outdoor dining. Among the other attractions, count a well-stocked bar; a long, mostly Italian wine list, with most prices set below the $40 mark; and a collection of domestic, imported, and microbrewed beers, served in the bottle with a frosty mug on the side.
The vibe is pleasant too: comfortable, casual, but nicely appointed, with cloth napkins, walls painted in sumptuous shades of tomato and saffron, and a weekend piano player who coaxes pop, jazz, and show tunes out of the glossy black upright in the corner. The crowd may be older, but the place is hardly a mausoleum: On a bustling Saturday night, our table talk was drowned out by waves of laughter rolling in from neighboring tables. And while no one will ever describe D'Agnese's as hip or edgy, we hereby acknowledge that predictability and broad appeal have merit too.
If that were all there was to it, it would add up to a convenient, well-conceived crowd-pleaser -- no surprise, considering Boffice's credentials as a longtime restaurant owner. (His other current spots include D'Agnese's Tomato Grill in Hudson and the just-opened Bistro at Hammond's Corners in Bath.)
But here's the thing: D'Agnese's food -- a large but somewhat repetitive collection of steaks, chops, seafood, and pasta dishes -- hardly stands up to critical scrutiny. More attention to detail would certainly help; more robust, imaginative seasonings couldn't hurt. But at least during two recent visits, half-hearted execution and tired preparations dimmed our enjoyment.
That goes for everything from the flat-footed "Bolognese" sauce, with clumps of gristly ground sausage, to the flabby, undercaramelized crust on our raspberry crème brûlée: With distressing regularity, little oversights nibbled away at our enthusiasm.
Filet mignon? Ordered medium rare, served medium. Veal saltimbocca? A nearly transparent layer of pounded veal obliterated by soggy breading. The vaguely overcooked, farm-raised "Cajun" salmon? Blackened, yet determinedly bland, with none of the zest its name seemed to promise.
Still, there were some ups to counteract the downs. No complaints about a five-piece starter of mushroom caps, stuffed with a blend of imitation and canned crabmeat, celery, and onions, thanks mainly to the tongue-tickling lemon-butter sauce upon which it rested. (That same citrusy sauce gave a boost to a starter of Shrimp D'Agnese, too.)
Both thin wedding soup (starring two tiny, frozen veal meatballs, a few specks of pastini, and some threads of escarole) and pasta e fagioli (sturdier, but still underseasoned) were forgettable stuff. But salads were well-composed cuties, particularly the goody-packed antipasto version, rife with olives, well-trimmed artichoke hearts, fresh mozzarella, and a chiffonade of salami, prosciutto, and fresh basil, in a bright but well-balanced homemade Italian dressing. And while a "field greens" salad was made with romaine, not the promised mesclun mix, we still enjoyed the garnishes of roasted red pepper, mandarin orange, artichoke hearts, and candied pecans, with creamy vinaigrette on the side.
But don't get us started on the kitchen's tart, tinny marinara. Anyone who grew up in an Italian household knows that when one grandma wants to dis another, all she has to do is sneer, "Her sauce tastes like it came out of a can." We can only imagine what Nonna would say about D'Agnese's one-dimensional stuff. On the other hand, even picky grannies probably would approve of the firm al dente pasta beneath the sauce -- in one case linguine, in another some dense, husky gnocchi (frozen, but good) -- which had been cooked with obvious care.
Service was equally uneven. On a slow weeknight, for instance, a young-enough-to-be-our-kid waiter did just about everything wrong, from neglecting us to ignoring us to addressing us as "you guys." Yet a weekend waitress turned out to be an attentive, knowledgeable, and reasonably efficient pro. True, she forgot about the gnocchi we had ordered on the side. But when we mentioned it, she was quick with an apology and an offer for a complimentary dessert.
Not that the crème brûlée turned out to be all that great. But if it's the thought that counts, we're giving her a 10.