12220 Veirs Mill Rd. (at Randolph Road), Wheaton. 942-5550. Open daily, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. MC, V. Reservations. Prices: Pastas average $4 to $5, main courses $6 to $7.50. Full dinners $8 to $9.50.
WHEN I was a child I was enchanted by stories like Little Women , tales of brave, cheerful little girls and their widowed mothers, whose spirit carried them through fledgling independence. Part way through my first dinner at Enrico's I recognized a poignant tug at my emotions.
The hostess, the waitresses, the faces appearing from the kitchen, even some of the diners bore a familial resemblance, and there were young women of all ages -- tiny ones bustling back and forth, older ones taking orders and serving, one happily helping the other to get the coffee machine going. An endearing, good-natured cooperation was reverberating off the walls.
So I asked, and sure enodugh, the restaurant was lnamed for my waitress' father, who died three years ago, and the place is run by mother and aunt and cousins and sisters, with a little peripheral help from an uncle and a boyfriend. I wasn't sure whether to review Enrico's or write a novel about it.
Enrico's restaurant has a lot to admire. It is a very small place, not two dozen tables in all, at the margin of a marginal looking shopping strip.Not much to attract you on the outside. Inside, however, with more imagination than money, the space has been transformed to a demurely pretty place to eat. The tables are covered with -- what a relief from red checks -- swaths of dark flowered cotton, each one different. On the walls and rafters are groupings of baskets with more flowered cottons spilling out of them or great bunches of artificial red carnations strewn among them. Small black lanterns light the tables.On the flowered backgrounds are red paper placemats, but the napkins are cloth. Waitresses wear long flowered aprons and an air of concern.
Even the dishes are imaginative, all being clear patterned glass that shows off the food to advantage. The wine decanters look like emptied Christmas liquor bottles, but once the glass bread plates and glass pasta bowls and glass platters and glass tumblers have been added to the table setting, the resulting still life is well-orchestrated.
Among the forms of wisdom demonstrated at Enrico's is the limited menu. This is a simple restaurant with an amateur air; thus, it is appropriate that the dinner choice be circumscribed. There is one turkey dish, one veal, two chicken and one seafood. In addition, there are pastas: linguine, fettucine, manicotti, ravioli and lasagne, plus eggplant parmigiana. Finally, there is a whole page devoted to pizza and hoagies. Unfortunately, the circumscription is such that you cannot order a half-portion of pasta for appetizer; pasta comes either as a whole meal with salad and bread or as a tomato-sauced side dish with a meat course. As for wines, there is no list, simply a choice of red white or rose in carafes. The menu has a promising, down-to-earth quality, and prices are, with a few unexplained exceptions such as fettucine with white sauce or spinach, fairly earthy. Pasta courses with salad average $4 to $5; meat courses with linguine and salad are $6.25 to $7.50. Full dinners, from soup to sherbet, are $8 to $.9.50.
Yes, Enrico's is promising. It just needs improvenment in the kitchen. The cooking repeatedly shows that there is a giant step between home cooking and restaurant cooking. Dish after dish needs salt (readily corrected at the table), but the cioppino, an enormous bowl of shrimp in shell, mussels and giant crab legs over linguine in a peppery tomato sauce, was spoiled irretrievably by excessive salt (as well as excessively pungent, overcooked mussels). The menu boasts that the linguine is cooked al dente only, but I never managed to find it al dente at all.The two dishes that worked wree the turkey cutlets breaded and sauteed, then sauced with tomato puree and mozzarella; and veal marsala. The turkey cutlets were moist and crisply coated, their sauce aromatic. The veal was a small portion, but good meat deftly sauteed, then finished with well-browned mushrooms and a deglazing of marsala. The marinated, roasted chicken might have been good, except that my sample had been reheated so that the fleash was pasty and tasted flat despite its oregano and olive oil.
A soup, chicken with pastina, showed possibilities realized by the addition of salt. And small corrections in the pasta -- draining the spaghetti better so it didn't dilute its sauce, or cooking the fettucine a few moments less -- would have measurably improved the meal. The white cream sauces, however, with or without spinach, were hopelessly bland, not helped at all by the dried-out grated cheese. And eggplant parmigiana was sliced so thin and breaded so heavily that it tasted more like eggplant-flavored bread crumbs than vice versa. Prizzas were better than average -- but not much; and the hoagies balanced them by being worse than average. For dessert, try the cannoli, filled to order so they are still crisp when you eat them, their filling not oversweetened as is so common. Two ohter house desserts were unavailable (torta di frutta e crema) and disappointing (cassada).
Ultimately, what one can say about the food at Enrico's is that, except for the veal, it is generous -- the portions of pasta are imporsing, and the cioppino is a seafood melange that could serve a crowd. Simple things, such as a crisp green salad with Italian dressing (skip the blue cheese) are made with care. And the staff is so eager to please that I can't help feeling that they will pull it off. How can you help liking a restaurant that serves you a whole mug of espresso, either because it hasn't managed to buy espresso cups yet, or because it can't bear to serve a little portion of anything?