Big, noisy, well-priced, and did we say big?
Italian in the Great American mode
By Candy Sagon
November 21, 2010
When Randy Norton, co-chairman of Great American Restaurants, decided to open an Italian place in the Fairfax Corner shopping center, he knew just where to go to research great Italian food.
And it wasn't Italy.
"We wanted to do Italian-American, so we ate at a zillion places in New York and Philadelphia," Norton says. He and his team, including chef Ben McCarter, made dining trips to Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, South Florida and Atlanta before they finally settled on a menu and opened Ozzie's Corner Italian in September.
The result is typical Great American: big, convivial bar; sprawling, noisy dining room; attentive, cheerful servers; generous, well-priced food. As at the chain's 10 other eateries, the ingredients are top-notch, and the kitchen goes the extra mile. The pasta is made from scratch, and the menu offers several surprises (red wine prunes with mascarpone for dessert, for one).
But there are also unexpected clunkers, as well as the ongoing struggle with noise when the restaurant is full. Despite the carpeting and the acoustical tiles in the high ceiling, at 8 on a weekend night, the reading on our sound level meter soared to 82 decibels, about the same as a loud lawn mower. Keep that in mind if you're planning to have a serious conversation.
Opening Ozzie's at Fairfax Corner was a somewhat risky move. Great American already has a restaurant there -- Coastal Flats -- and there was worry that the new place would drain business from the older one.
That hasn't happened. In fact, customers are lining up at both restaurants. You can't make reservations at Ozzie's (or at any of the chain's other eateries), but you can call ahead and get on a waiting list for priority seating.
The Italian-American theme at Ozzie's is obvious the minute you walk in and spot the huge mural near the open kitchen. On one side, it depicts the wedding scene from the first "Godfather" movie; on the other, the annual Feast of San Gennaro festival in New York's Little Italy. Dark wood trim, old-fashioned lights and tufted red leather booths complete the 1940s feel.
If you're starting with an appetizer, ignore everything but the arancini. These risotto balls stuffed with cheese and sausage are fried to order and served with a side of marinara sauce for dipping. The light, crunchy exterior and cheesy interior make them irresistible. "Let's just order a few dozen rounds of these and call it dinner," one friend suggested.
I was less enamored with the ho-hum artichoke-spinach dip served with weird neon-red corn chips. (That's Italian?) And then there's the so-called bruschetta. The familiar starter is usually crisp ovals of bread topped with fresh tomatoes, herbs, maybe a little garlic, some balsamic vinegar: simple. Ozzie's has morphed its fontina bruschetta into what I can describe only as fingers of grilled cheese sandwich on which are dumped a bunch of halved grape tomatoes and tiny balls of mozzarella tossed with balsamic vinegar dressing. Skip the topping, and this could be a kid's meal.
Also less than stellar: the Blue Chips, which turned out to be a pile of potato chips dribbled with nuggets of blue cheese, pieces of dried fig and more of the ubiquitous, sweet balsamic dressing. As I said, stick to the arancini.
Or just skip to the main event, the pasta and meat entrees. The pappardelle tossed with an intense Bolognese sauce made from Texas-raised wild boar is rich, velvety and terrific. The pappardelle and Bolognese also show up in the restaurant's best-selling Crazy Lasagna. Inspired by a similar dish at Pricci in Atlanta, Ozzie's version is served in a cast-iron skillet, the noodles loosely layered with sauce, tomatoes, ricotta and provolone, plus a couple of meatballs tossed in for good measure. The portion is hefty, and the friend who took the last third of it home assured me that eaten cold for breakfast the next day, "it was still wonderful."
Sunday Skillet Brick Chicken, the entree we tried on our first visit, is still one of my favorites. Also served in a cast-iron skillet, the smoky, wood-grilled boneless chicken is seared under a heavy weight so the skin gets crisp and the meat stays moist. It arrives atop a garlicky bed of cannellini beans, spinach, tomatoes and tiny meatballs that could be a meal in itself.
For red-meat eaters, the beef short ribs are fall-off-the-bone tender, the perfect partner to the creamy mascarpone polenta and wild mushrooms that accompany them. If you come on Friday or Saturday, get the meaty grilled Strauss Farms veal chop, served with smashed red potatoes, porcini cream sauce and fat stalks of asparagus.
I have mixed feelings about the fish entrees at Ozzie's. On the plus side, you can find wonderful whole grilled branzino, a mild Mediterranean sea bass, served with smashed, buttery Brussels sprouts and tomato fresco. I'm not a big fan of Brussels sprouts, yet I couldn't stop swiping forkfuls of them from my companion's plate. On the negative side is the salmon puttanesca. Our waiter said it was one of the most popular dishes, and if you don't really want to taste your salmon, I guess it'd be perfect. The lush mascarpone polenta and the spicy puttanesca sauce, with tons of Kalamata olives, pretty much overwhelm the nicely cooked fish.
Did I mention that the portions here are BIG? We took home part of the tagliatelle with meatballs and, just for grins, weighed the pasta. There was 13 ounces of pasta left! That means the entree probably had contained a pound of pasta, plus five or so meatballs the size of Ping-Pong balls.
For smaller appetites, here's my suggestion: Get the Sunday Salad With Meatballs. It's a perfect little dinner of three plump meatballs with a small scoop of salad tossed with white beans, olives and strips of salami, cheese and ham.
If you still have room for dessert, the tiramisu Ho Ho (which vaguely resembles the HoHo snack cake) is a rolled version of the traditional Italian dessert. And even prune skeptics will be won over by the aforementioned red-wine-marinated prunes with mascarpone. If your arteries can take it, there's also triple chocolate gelato and a white chocolate turtle pecan cheesecake.
After all the rich food and large portions, I wished the dessert menu had included a few more light choices, but I am obviously in the minority. When I asked Great American's Norton about it, he just laughed. "We've never had any success selling light desserts. Or, really, any light items at all."