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Dining Out: Venerable Ottavio's, Pagoda weather a fickle storm

Published July 7, 2009 6:00 pm

Dining updates » Provo, SLC restaurants maintain loyal followings with reliable fare.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

It's rare these days that a restaurant can say, "established in 1946" or "since 1955." Indeed, the restaurant business is fickle and unforgiving. But two Utah restaurants, the Pagoda in Salt Lake City and Ottavio's Ristorante Italiano in Provo, have successfully survived for a combined 117 years.

Ottavio's

Ottavio's is a gem among the (dare I say) dilapidated storefronts of Provo's Center Street. The mainly southern Italian restaurant has been open since 1997. (Its sister restaurant in El Cajon, Calif., was established in 1955.)

High ceilings, tabletops and a curved bar made from gorgeous granite a brick wood-fired oven and Italian murals on the walls make for elegant surroundings. Particularly notable is a mural of Michelangelo's sculpture of David, complete with a leaf painted over his genitalia. This is Provo, after all.

Pasta, pizza and protein -- beef, chicken, fish -- make up most of the menu. Though not one dish my party and I ate was truly notable, the desserts were stellar.

The chocolate lover at the table wouldn't give up the rich and moist three-layer chocolate cake ($5.95). Another friend gushed about the textbook crème brûlée ($5.95), with its gratifying browned sugar cover. I loved the tiramisu ($4.50) and its fluffy mix of espresso-and-marsala-soaked ladyfingers and mascarpone.

Other dishes weren't made with nearly that much love.

The kitchen uses the same tall focaccia that graces each table to make the bruschetta ($7). The ginormous logs of fluffy bread quickly turned soggy under the weight of heaps of juicy diced tomatoes. Smaller, flatter bases would make more sense.

Another starter, a run-of-the-mill caprese salad ($8), combined mealy, out-of-season roma tomatoes, shredded basil and slices of cold, tasteless mozzarella. Fried calamari ($9) tasted much better. The tentacles and ringlets were tender and crunchy and needed just a dash of salt. (I skipped the marinara, which would have masked the subtle squid flavor.)

As for pizzas, undercooked slices of insipid roma tomatoes topped a Margherita pizza ($10) with an otherwise respectable crust.

This being a mainly southern menu, many of the dishes sport red sauce, including the vitello parmigiano ($17), spaghetti con polpetti ($11) and manicotti ($13).

The veal was flattened to about a quarter-inch, heavily breaded and then smothered in meat sauce, leaving the veal's real flavor to the imagination. The spaghetti and manicotti dishes, both capped with crimson marinara, were no better than what you can get at Buca di Beppo.

Gnocchi al pesto ($14) was decent. The potato dumplings could have been lighter but the pesto -- a pungent mix of pine nuts, basil and garlic -- receives a hit of cream that balances and updates the traditional sauce.

The fact that Ottavio's serves beer and wine in Utah County is a plus. But the wine selections are oh-so-boring. Usual suspects, such as Kendall Jackson, Robert Mondavi and, ahem, Sutter Home, and an $8 corkage make brown-bagging nearly a necessity. (If you want Italian wine, ask for the reserve list -- but be prepared to pay.)

For those who prefer unleaded beverages, there are Italian sodas in a variety of flavors by the half-carafe ($2.95), as well as sparkling waters, cider and lemonade ($2.25-$3.75).

The kitchen needs to rekindle its passion for simple, but excellent food. If its desserts and longevity are any indication, I think the kitchen and owners have it in them.

The Pagoda

The Pagoda, started by Fujio Iwasaki and in its 63rd year of operation, has also weathered the highs and lows of the restaurant business.

Rumor had it that the place wasn't as good as it used to be. The dining room has the same Formica tables and Japanese screens scattered throughout the room it has always had. But on a recent visit, I found the food to be pretty good. Granted, the kitchen isn't turning out anything groundbreaking, but instead relies on consistently good nostalgic menu items such as the "family-style combination dinner" ($15.85).

That combo dinner comes with the choice of soup -- go for the miso over the egg flower soup -- pork chow mein or a California roll, egg foo yong, fried rice, two pieces of perfectly fried shrimp tempura, sweet and sour spare ribs and green tea. Only one in our party ordered the combo, so the egg foo yong shared a plate with the sweet-and-sour spare ribs; the bean sprout and egg bun suffered. The California roll in the combo dinner is a nod to the changing times; the restaurant has added 29 sushi rolls to its menu. Of the three rolls we ordered -- spicy tuna ($4.50), rainbow ($8.50) and caterpillar ($7.50) -- each was expertly prepared, the rice was cooked and seasoned properly and the fish was very fresh tasting and was neither too warm nor too cool.

Other dishes showed off a keen fry station. Cubes of agedashi tofu ($5.50); shrimp tempura ($14.95), along with green beans, carrots, broccoli, sweet potato, onions, yellow squash and zucchini; and chicken tatsuta-age ($10; $15.50), tempura-battered moist chicken breast drizzled with teriyaki sauce were perfectly fried. Hot, clean oil -- and an expert at the fryer -- is what made these dishes successful.

The best dish we ate was miso sea bass ($18.95). First, the fish -- not overfished Chilean but black -- is marinated in miso and sake. Then, it's baked until it's moist and flaky. Not even the accompanying mushy carrots in a mix with al dente broccoli and bok choy could detract from this dish.

For those who still want to end a meal on a sweet note, go for the bananas Foster ($5.95) with all its boozy-sugary goodness. The waxy chocolate cake ($5.95) paled in comparison to Ottavio's version and the mochi ($4.50) are supplied by Sysco. The almond kanten ($4.50) -- a gelatin dessert made with agar-agar that's derived from seaweed -- sounded intriguing, but the restaurant was out of it.

The night I was there, former Utah Jazz head coach Frank Layden was dining with his party at a corner table. Former Jazz player John Stockton was a regular at the no-nonsense restaurant. Regulars haven't given in to the rumors, and newcomers shouldn't either.

E-mail Lesli J. Neilson at lneilson@sltrib.com" Target="_BLANK">lneilson@sltrib.com.

Ottavio's Ristorante Italiano

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Bottom line » Mainly southern Italian fare served in an attractive space on Provo's Center Street. Desserts shine, but more passion in the preparation of entrees would keep business alive.

Location » 71 E. Center St., Provo; 801-377-9555

Online » http://www.ottavios.com" Target="_BLANK">http://www.ottavios.com

Hours » Monday to Thursday, 4 to 9 p.m.; Friday to Saturday, 4 to 10 p.m.

Children's menu » No

Prices » $$

Liquor » Beer and wine

Corkage » $8

Reservations » Accepted

Takeout » Yes

Wheelchair access » Yes

Outdoor dining » Yes

On-site parking » Yes

Credit cards » All major

The Pagoda

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Bottom line » The Pagoda has been serving Japanese and Chinese-American dishes to patrons for 63 years. Sushi rolls are a great way to update the menu.

Location » 26 E St., Salt Lake City; 801-355-8155

Hours » Tuesday to Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.; and Sunday, 4 to 9 p.m.

Children's menu » No

Prices » $$

Liquor » Beer and wine

Corkage » $4.95

Reservations » Accepted

Takeout » Yes

Wheelchair access » No

Outdoor dining » No

On-site parking » Yes

Credit cards » All major