East Millcreek • Americans are accustomed to lots of choices, whether it's sneakers, toothpaste or cars.
But when it comes to dining out, can a restaurant offer too many choices?
I've pondered this question more than once during my years as a food critic. It came up again during visits to Antica Sicilia, which opened earlier this year in a space on 3300 South that has seen many eateries come and go.
The problem is, the bigger the menu, the bigger the challenges of quality control and timing. Antica Sicilia is doing a commendable job thus far, but can improve on both counts. Since it's been open only since March, that may happen fairly soon.
In the meantime, there's some lovely food here, especially considering that this area of Salt Lake County has few good locally owned restaurants.
Antica Sicilia is the younger sibling of Sicilia Mia, in Holladay, which was recently expanded. That restaurant has a loyal following and no doubt created some interest in the new spot, which has had many occupants, most recently a diner called the Rustic Grill. The look is still rustic, featuring dark wood ceiling beams and wall posts. But white-over-black tablecloths add a bit of elegance, and there's plenty of natural light from windows on the north and west. Up front, there's a cold case filled with the many desserts that are made in house, from cookies to tiramisu.
It takes some time to look through the Antica Sicilia menu, from the 20 or so appetizers and more than a half dozen soups and salads to 20 pasta dishes and only slightly fewer entrées, plus a baker's dozen pizza selections.
Two of our choices on a first visit were straight-up winners: involtini di parmigiana ($9.95) and cefalù pizza ($14.95). The involtini was three good-sized rolls of thinly sliced eggplant stuffed with ham and provolone, then draped in melted mozzarella and a tomato sauce so light and redolent of basil, it tasted of summer. It's large enough to make an entrée on its own, or a good starter to share.
The pizza boasted a combination of two cheeses — fior de latte and provolone — and a generous crown of thinly sliced, crisp prosciutto. But it was the grilled radicchio, which imparted a smoky, slightly bitter flavor to temper the richness of the cheeses and meats, that made this pizza great. I wanted more of it! The crust was thick enough to bear its burden, and flavorful, but we had to ask for a steak knife to finish the cutting job the kitchen didn't.
Less successful was a dish of clams and mussels sautéed in white wine ($13.95). The mussels were small but tender enough. The clams, however, were overcooked and the sauce was salty, too salty to dip the fresh bread that arrives pronto at every table, along with dipping sauces of olive oil spiced with red pepper or basil.
Most of the pasta at Antica Sicilia is made in house, and on a subsequent visit, a staffer sat at a table in the middle of the restaurant rolling casarecce for that evening's special. Two young girls who stood by watching were allowed to give it a try: The restaurant website says "customers are family," and this was a surefire way to entertain the youngsters, as well as those of us seated nearby.
On another night, there were a couple of rather rowdy kids at a big family table, but no one paid them any mind, so it does seem the restaurant is sincere in its wish to be family friendly.
But back to that casarecce, 2-inch-long pieces of pasta that are much thicker than buccatini. That night it was served with clams and a smattering of cherry tomatoes, with a big whole shrimp on top ($17.95). The clams were little plumper this time and the pasta was perfectly toothy, but the broth again was overly salty.
We also sampled ravioli with mushrooms ($19.95), a rich plate of pillowy pasta stuffed with prosciutto and wild mushrooms, and garnished with more mushrooms. It was blanketed in a velvety cream sauce spiked with truffle oil. (I don't even want to know the calorie count.) A vibrant orchid blossom saved it visually from brownout, but I would have eaten all of it even without the flower.
The meal didn't start well. An appetizer of six large baked oysters ($15.95) was disappointing because half of each oyster was hardly edible, due to its tough muscle. And the thick breadcrumb topping tasted as if it came straight from a box.
The other disappointment was that the ravioli arrived 5 to 10 minutes before the casarecce, creating an awkward pause in the meal.
This happened again on another visit, when our party was larger. It made me wonder why all the servers wore headsets if not to help with communication.
Still, elements of that meal were truly memorable (not including the staff's overuse of the exclamation "mamma mia!"). A spinach salad ($8.95) was beautiful as well as delicious. Here, freshly shaved Parmesan, drizzled with balsamic glaze, served as the base for a crown of sautéed spinach, studded with a jewellike cherry tomato. And arancinette riso venere ($8.95) was a very good take on those big balls of fried rice. The coating was light but crisp, the black wild rice filling tender and flavorful (although I couldn't detect the flavor of salmon) and the tomato sauce served with it was the perfect finish, but a spoon should have been provided to dish it up.
A plate of house-made tagliatelle dressed with chunks of tender salmon in a light cream sauce ($19.95) was rich and subtly smoky, topped with a spoonful of caviar and a slice of smoked fish. It was big enough for a satisfying dinner and lunch the next day. An entrée of salmon with a lemon and caper cream sauce ($22.95) was perfectly cooked and came with a generous portion of crisply cooked vegetables that included broccoli, zucchini, snow peas, carrots and mushrooms.
Black risotto with seafood ($17.95) included clams (again, chewy), mussels and a whole lot of squid. One shrimp perched atop the rice, which was cooked just right. I happen to like squid, but the menu doesn't specify what seafood is in the dish, so it might be worth asking, just in case you don't.
One entrée that missed the mark that night was chicken with artichokes ($16.95). A large piece of boneless white meat was slathered in cream sauce studded with mushrooms and pieces of artichoke heart. But it was marred by a strong taste of oil, as if the breading had soaked up too much because it was put in the pan before the oil was hot enough. The vegetables that came with it, however, were crisp tender and delicious.
For traditionalists, there's no spaghetti and meatballs listed on the menu. But you can get any pasta served with any sauce, which made one of our elderly diners very happy.
While there are no craft cocktails at Antica Sicilia, and only two beers, there's a varied menu of wines, all of them imported, that service the food well. About a dozen of them are available by the glass; unfortunately, prosecco isn't one of them.
Desserts aren't listed on the menu, probably because there are too many ($3-$7.95). I wasn't bowled over by any of the four we tried: two varieties of cookie that had no discernible flavor; a chocolate mousse with hazelnut crumbs that was decent enough but far too rich after pasta with cream sauce; and a pile of cream puffs coated with milk chocolate that was enough for at least six people. I longed for a tart lemon sorbet, but alas, ice cream and sorbet are not on the menu.
There are flashes of brilliance from the Antica Sicilia kitchen. I just hope that either the light shines more broadly or the menu is pared enough so that everything is exceptional. That might even make me shout "mamma mia!"