Cafe Reviewed: Thursday, April 21, 2004
Near Perfecto!

Crazy name aside, this new Italian bistro in Arlington scores.

By Nancy Schaadt

Saltimbocca’s! Italian Bistro

5900 W I-20 (at Little Rd), Arlington. 817-561-1117. Mon-Thu 11am-10pm, Fri-Sat 11am-11pm, Sun 10am-10pm. All major credit cards accepted.

wise editor once told me that each writer is entitled to two exclamation points in a lifetime. She was right, and to this day, I dislike the overuse of “!” almost as much as I hate hard-to-read street signs. But how bad can a restaurant be when its only fault is in its name?

Saltimbocca’s! — the large, three-level restaurant and bar formerly known as CJ’s Roadhouse — opened about two months ago, under the ownership of Brett Russell (formerly of Italianni’s). The interior is classy and clubby but comfortable, with leather couches and a piano arranged in front of a gas fireplace. A long, L-shaped bar anchors the uppermost level, with tables on two additional levels. Dark wood and wrought iron railings add to the sensation that Saltimbocca’s! is tres chic.

For a restaurant that had barely been open a month when a guest and I visited, the food was precise and the service stupendous. Our waiter, Mike, knew the menu by heart and earned major points by pooh-poohing the mushroom and marsala soup and suggesting the fried calamari sautéed with three different types of peppers. Now deep-fried and sautéed circlets of squid don’t even sound edible, much less good. But what a surprise. Let’s just say that the squid and sautéed peppers — red, hot pepperoncini, and hot cherry — flirted all night but didn’t go home together. Nibbles came in equally distinguishable colors of spicy and slick and warm and chewy, a unique treat.

The calamari portion was the size of a respectable lunch entrée, and another starter — wilted spinach salad — was also darned near meal-sized. But since it was so tasty, it was hard to complain — fresh baby spinach tossed with hot bacon vinaigrette and topped with mandarin orange slices, fat nodules of gorgonzola cheese, candied walnuts, and pancetta (very fancy bacon). The combination of sour dressing, sweet orange slices, salty bacon, and aggressive cheese seems overwhelming, especially when you consider that the dish is hot (temperature) and cold. But no, the salad’s balance and structure made each bite a cornucopia of flavors.

For entrées, try Saltimbocca’s! saltimbocca. The word means “jump up into the mouth,” and this entrée (usually involving veal) is generally so appealing that you’ll be trying to make some of your date’s dish jump into your mouth. The classic (Roman) preparation involves layering thin sautéed veal slices with sage, prosciutto ham, and provolone cheese, then finishing the dish with butter and wine or lemon juice. It’s fabulously decadent. Saltimbocca’s! rendition has layers of spinach, veal, prosciutto, and provolone but no sage. The dish, finished with a sauce of demiglace (very strong beef stock) and marsala wine, was very good; if you’d never eaten it with sage and lemon, you might have walked away ecstatic.

Another tasty yet slightly odd entrée was the potato-stuffed ravioli with seared tenderloin and mushrooms in a Chianti wine sauce. Potato-stuffed ravioli? Puh-leeze. I know a pierogi when I see one, and this was a pierogi, one that happened to have been made with fine semolina flour pasta and packed with garlic. It still bore more resemblance to the Polish dumpling than to the Italian staple. Although some of the tenderloin pieces were far from tender, the dish had a lot of heart. A good, beef gravy — this time spiked with Chianti — overflowed with mushrooms as well as red peppers and leeks. Every bite was supremely flavorful and rich.

This dinner ended with tartufo, an Italian dessert traditionally made from preserved cherries and gelato in a chocolate cup. Saltimbocca’s! version sang — dense chocolate cake filled with white and milk chocolate mousse, served in pool of cream, stippled with dollops of raspberry sauce. (It’s OK to salivate while reading this.) The cake crust was dense but moist and supple, and the mousse fillings were about as good as whipped pudding can be.

The word on the street about Saltimbocca’s! has been less than generous — hour-long waits for entrées, unexplained “special” ingredients (which could prove deadly to people with food allergies), and ignored special orders. Yet based on this experience alone, the trip there is well worth it.

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