To get to the host(ess) station at Maggiano’s Little Italy, you must first pass through the restaurant’s sister establishment, the Corner Bakery, a lunch spot-takeout joint serving such a dizzying array of Italian-style deli items and baked goods that posted instructions explain to customers how to go about ordering. The Bakery is dwarfed by Maggiano’s proper: The restaurant’s second floor is a labyrinth of heavily wooded banquet-rooms-for-rent; the main dining room is the kind of handsome, high-ceilinged feed emporium that could accommodate two full-court hoops games. The calculated synergy and well-oiled efficiency of the whole enterprise verges on awesome, but when I gush to my art-teacher friend about how well-executed our orders are, given the Van Gogh-sized crowds, he says, “Yeah. Sort of like McDonald’s.”
This is not a review that slams the chain for snuffing out mom and pop. The conceptual, thoroughly market-researched aura of Maggiano’s is central to its appeal, and few bankers in the world wouldn’t laugh in mom and pop’s faces for proposing a business of a similar scale. The restaurant’s walls are speckled with newspaper clippings that have undoubtedly been placed by a PR operative who’s owed a lot of favors, and they give evidence of the chain’s goal of omnipresence. But, as is the case with any acutely managed service venture, Maggiano’s deftly sidesteps this cold reality by showering the people with what they’re supposed to want.
In this case, the people want food. Lots of it. The best way to explain the portions at this “family style” restaurant is to assume that the model family is either Catholic or Mafia or both. Given the sizes of the platters, you can easily eat here for less than 10 bucks, as long as you’re not alone. A half-order of chopped salad, sprinkled with bacon bits that our waiter claims are made of prosciutto, is certainly big enough to serve as a full meal for two, maybe three. A platter of eggplant Parmesan is just plain massive, and I spot a bead of sweat on the brow of the waitress who delivers it. This is the only restaurant I can think of where I’ve noticed the quality of the take-home containers, which are oven-ready and, I’ve found, reusable.
Maggiano’s menu is arranged much the way one would be at a restaurant in Rome, with many dishes available in full and half portions, but the food is more accurately
Italian-Americanthe kind of cuisine that developed when immigrants in New York had to translate southern Italian recipes without the benefit of the homeland’s superior ingredients.
There isn’t much on the menu that would qualify as refined, but there are plenty of examples that testify to why this cheesy, heavy-on-the-red-sauce cuisine is so widely appreciated. The making and deployment of said red sauce is key. Linguine with red clam sauce is simple and spare, just a bowl of noodles fragrant with tomatoes and shellfish and waiting to be heaped with grated Parmesan. Mostaccioli (think penne) is similarly basic but topped with eggplant and a rich, tomato-y marinara that could make a decent meal even out of the leathery chicken my dad likes to make. The spaghetti with too-sweet, strangely acidic meat sauce is the only pasta dish that doesn’t strike me as right-onkind of weird, given the restaurant’s obvious demographic target.
To really enjoy Maggiano’s, it helps if you can abide food that doesn’t sit lightly in the stomach. The portions can contribute to this problem (my mom always insisted I earn my place in the clean-plate club), but mostly, I’m talking about the recipes. The tartufo, a Roman-style dessert made with chocolate ice cream, sour cherries, and more chocolate, is so wicked it makes us laugh. The ravioli is homemade, stuffed with mushroom paste and doused in cream sauce; the pasta pillows are velvety and ridiculously richand we order them as an appetizer.
This is not the place to go for straight-up seafood
second-tier steakhouses do more interesting things with swordfishbut if you’re in the mood for highly embellished turf meat, Maggiano’s is your place. Chicken saltimbocca is pounded thin and tender, breaded, topped with cheese, and doused in saucein this case, one that’s heavy with onions. It’s deliciousand typical. Save for the few steaks, no meat here is too good to be denied cheese and sauce; damn the wimps who say that’s a bad thing.
There are plenty of opportunities to turn up something crummy when serving unambitious food to hundreds at a time. You could play handball with Maggiano’s stuffed mushroom caps, and in three visits, I ate more chewy calamari than in the whole past year. And seeing that this type of cuisine is sometimes ridiculed for being too garlic-heavy, I’m upset I don’t leave smelling more offensive.
A lot of folks might have had a tough time mustering a sense of humor when brought eggplant Parmesan made with, um, veal, but for the most part, the huge staff is surprisingly crackerjack. The vegetarian waitress who recommended the chicken Milanese has a good eye, and the pokey bartender who offered us free drinks was certainly reading our minds when he urged us to scrap our original order and choose something expensive. Some may scoff at the notion that Maggiano’s serves Italian cuisine as envisioned by the conglomerate that brought us Chili’s, but at least the conglomerate appears to be sharing the wealth.
Maggiano’s Little Italy, 5333 Wisconsin Ave. NW, (202) 966-5500.
A reader took exception with my writing about the Latin fare at Havana Breeze without mentioning Club Deco, a P Street club/restaurant that was known as Escandalo! before undergoing a face lift. “The owner decided he wanted to do a more contemporary club,” a bartender explains, “so he went for a ’20s theme.” The place looks great, but the tapas still need work; one night I’m served arepas, Venezuelan cornmeal cakes stuffed with cheese and beans (you could also get pork), that have the texture of stale muffins someone’s tried to hydrate in the microwave. Fortunately, my disappointment fades quickly once Berlin (who performs on Fridays) takes the stage and lip-syncs Madonna with the kind of conviction that could cause the real deal to hit the treadmill. I’m told there are other attractions. “The boys are delicious,” reports another staffer at the bar.
Club Deco, 2122 P St. NW, (202) 822-8910.
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