One thing you can safely say about the decor at the Venice, a recently opened Italian restaurant in Wheaton, is that it's very, very fancy. Outside there are spotlights, waving flags, stripped awnings, a filigreed roofline. Inside, plastic masquerades as marble, and there are enough imitation pillars to give Cecil B. De Mille a run for his money. Despite all the glitz, this is a pleasant place to eat, certainly a popular one, judging from the crowds at dinner time. (We waited 45 minutes for a table on a Saturday night, and that was with a reservation.)
What justifies the popularity in such a new restauruant? Very reasonable prices, for one thing. And some good, if not spectacular, Italian food. There are certainly no surprises on this menu, which includes the usual appetizers, pastas, shrimp, veal and pizza and the customary choice of white and red sauces. Most of it is adequate, and a few dishes are excellent.
Start with the salad bar that's included with the entrees. If you ignore the head lettuce, you can build yourself a decent antipasto with tuna, several kinds of cheese, pickled vegetables, pasta salad and fresh melon.
Also available is a good platter of a dozen or so mussels in a pleasant broth of mussel juice, olive oil, minced garlic and parsley (you'll have to ask for lemon on the side). There's also commendable fried zucchini, with the lightest of egg batters. But avoid the spiedini, a battered and fried cheese that is oilier than most.
If you ignore the soups, you won't be missing much. The minestrone is rich and hearty but nothing special, and the crab in the crab soup is oddly spongy. Forego the white pizza, too, which has too much oil.
Among the pastas, the cannelloni is outstanding. Unlike most, it's not swamped with sauce, so you can taste the tender, delicate crepe and the nicely flavored ground veal filling. Tortellini, too, are very good, the pasta circles rough, chewy, irregularly shaped and with a very good, cheese-laced tomato sauce. But sausage and eggplant -- soggy-battered eggplant parmigiana with unpleasantly flavorless sausage -- is a bust.
Shrimp marinara is excellent, the shrimp big, plump and sweet, the sauce a top-notch rendition with high quality tomatoes, fresh minced garlic and parsley. Perhaps the best entree in the house is chicken cacciatore, an immense platter with half a big, moist, flavorful bird, a fine, robust, winey tomato sauce flavored with bay leaf; lots of chunky green pepper and celery, and a mound of firm pasta. By comparison, the veal marsala we tried was sub-par. Although an unpounded cutlet, the meat was dry and flavorless, and was overpowered by an over-sweet, over-boozy marsala sauce.
Two of the desserts are made in house: a decent if curiously granular creme caramel, and a pale, waxy-tasting mousse. The wisest dessert choice is at the salad bar, where there are fresh fruit and cheese.