For starters, the restaurant is nearly impossible to find, tucked away as it is behind the antique shops of Hixson's Country Village. Have faith, though: Park in the front lot, walk through the gate, and follow the ethereal aroma of garlic and tomato across the courtyard (a popular spot for alfresco dining during warmer weather) and into the tiny restaurant.
From the vantage point of the foyer, drink in the dining room's eye-pleasing decor. It's small, all right, but from its terra cotta floor tiles to its soaring cathedral ceiling, the dimly lit interior looks clean, cozy, and contemporary. Candle lamps flicker from the handful of cobalt-blue tabletops. Strikingly crafted stained-glass windows set off the crisp white walls. Built-in wine racks climb toward the ceiling, and a long shelf stocked with liquor bottles does double duty as a bar.
And yes, the place is packed with hordes of well-dressed locals, especially on Saturday nights. Not that it takes much to make such a small space seem busy, but the tables turned over constantly during our weekend visit, and anxious would-be diners lined up in the foyer, waiting for their chance to take a seat. Foursomes of silver-haired seniors -- men in boldly patterned sweaters worthy of a Cosby Show revival, women resplendent in silk blouses and tennis bracelets -- rubbed elbows (quite literally) with young couples riding herd on restless youngsters, as well as with middle-aged folks who seemed delighted just to be out of the house.
Chef-owner Jim Cucuzza is mostly self-trained, interning at several local Italian spots before deciding, along with his wife and manager Rissa, to open the "casual fine dining" Bongiorno's in 1998. While Cucuzza's basic menu of moderately priced southern Italian standards (think Veal Marsala and Mussels Marinara) hasn't changed much since the restaurant opened, he has added a page of slightly more imaginative preparations to the mix, including items like Romano-Crusted Halibut, Orange Roughy Française, and Crabmeat-Stuffed Salmon. In addition, the nightly specials -- lush dishes like a 12-ounce veal chop with shrimp and mushrooms, served on a bed of risotto with a vaguely sweet port reduction -- are designed to allow Cucuzza to stretch his creative wings.
But while the signs might suggest that visitors are in for an above-average dining experience at Bongiorno's, that isn't necessarily the case. Despite the restaurant's popularity with its neighborhood crowd and several items that made us sit up and take notice, too many details are overlooked here to qualify the spot as an authentic hidden jewel.
That said, Cucuzza's kitchen can show some serious talent. Take that 12-ounce veal chop. Juicy, fork-tender, and literally bursting with flavor, it proved that Cucuzza and his staff are capable of turning out some very good dishes when they put their minds to it.
Sauces, too, seem to be among the kitchen's strong suits, sometimes rescuing what would have been otherwise disappointing preparations. For instance, a glistening but sadly overdone halibut filet was nearly redeemed by an excellent accompanying risotto, shot through with piquant bits of sautéed Roma tomato and stroked with a frisky white-wine-and-pesto sauce, redolent with garlic, olive oil, and basil. Likewise, the ho-hum crabmeat-and-crumb-topped salmon in another special was made memorable by its bed of butterfly-shaped farfalle, tossed with a diabolically rich but exceptionally light-textured Alfredo sauce.
For sheer tongue-tingling pleasure, it would be hard to beat Bongiorno's rich lemon-butter sauce, with its citrusy aroma and silky-smooth texture. It not only added dimension to an already worthy appetizer of Shrimp Carlos (four crisp, lightly breaded, perfectly sautéed crustaceans), but it also perked up a serving of steamed clams that would have otherwise been on the dry side. We even sopped up the remaining sauce droplets with bits of our warm ciabatta rolls: Not only was it that good in its own right, but it made a fine alternative to the unimaginative prepackaged butter pats that were meant to accompany the bread.
But then there were the disappointments. A dry, stringy chicken breast, layered with otherwise good prosciutto, provolone, and mozzarella, mostly ruined an order of Chicken Milanese. A bland, almost flavorless marinara weighed down a side dish of spaghetti. One night's order of Italian Wedding Soup, packed with chunks of tender ground beef, pieces of rigatoni, and spinach, was entirely too salty. But another night's sturdy pasta e fagioli needed a vigorous salt-and-peppering to wake it up. And while the risotto that came with our Thursday-night halibut was exquisite, the risotto beneath our Saturday-night veal chop was gummy and mishandled.
The well-intentioned but amateurish service didn't help matters. One night's young, nervous waiter didn't tell us about the specials until after he demanded our order. (This same fellow also missed the mark when he pointedly corrected a companion's pronunciation of a menu item.) Another server forgot to bring our bread and then left us waiting for 40 minutes before she served our salads. Neither server could shed much light on the mostly Italian wine list, water refills were consistently hard to come by, and our questions about the food were generally met with a smile and a shrug. And we learned firsthand that a room that looks intimate and cozy from the foyer can turn noisy, cramped, and uncomfortable when you are seated at a two-top about the size of a nightstand, surrounded by broad-beamed fellow diners and subjected to small children swinging from the back of your chair.
Undoubtedly, space is tight in the kitchen, as well, and dictates that desserts come from out-of-house sources. One night's tiramisu, shipped in from New York, was good-tasting and prettily presented on a white plate swirled with chocolate sauce. Another evening's cream-cheese-filled pumpkin roll, from a local baker, was moist and flavorful, although we scraped away the greasy white frosting before getting down to business. Still, it would be nice to see more traditional Italian desserts on the menu: Several Little Italy bakeries turn out great cassata cakes and cannoli, for example, and biscotti and cappuccino could make a fine but unfussy ending to a meal.
Not that Bongiorno's is hurting for business. Still, a little polishing could go a long way toward making the restaurant the fine-dining experience that it wants to be.