The three most important things about real estate are supposed to be location, location, location, right? Then I arrived at Linguine’s, in Bowmansville, to find a space wedged into a gas-station-dominated plaza that should be impossible for the survival of a successful upscale casual Italian restaurant. Yet Linguine’s has not only persisted there since 1998, it has thrived. After sautéed calamari, a stuffed artichoke and crispy-skinned hunk of sea bass, I walked out past the pump islands pondering a different aphorism: Rules are made to be broken. The site says second-class. The food says otherwise. ¶ The dining room has diner attributes, built for speed, with windowsills full of balsamic bottles and other Italian grocery items. It’s lined in wood paneling and placards pushing standards. (“HOW ABOUT A STUFFED ARTICHOKE.”)
The signs are the first wave in a barrage of choices. The regular menu is augmented by a roster of semi-permanent specials on a chalkboard, and daily specials mentioned by the server. After dinner there recently, here’s how I would handicap the choices.
First, consider the daily specials seriously. There are places that use them to move out aging goods, but at Linquine’s we found dishes that take more work, not less, and are offered with pride. Linguine’s chef-owner Vincent Desiderio is not just another guy flipping sauté pans. He is a scion of the family that ran Desiderio’s Restaurant in Cheektowaga.
We ordered two of his specials, the sea bass on housemade tagliatelle with pomodoro tomato-basil sauce ($27.95), and the cannelloni in housemade pasta sheets, filled with sausage, ricotta cheese and herbs, with mozzarella and tomato sauce ($17.95).
That bass was a fist-sized chunk with the skin still on one side. It was seriously seared, golden and crusty, while remaining flaky and moist inside. Even the skin was good to eat, rendered out so it added pleasure, and eaten with gusto instead of discarded.
It arrived atop a heap of good greens, which we’ll talk about later. Those were on a serving of tagliatelle pasta, fettucine’s little sister, topped with a sauce of chunky tomatoes, briny Mediterranean olives, and sweet cloves of roasted garlic. The sauce was relatively light and well-seasoned, a work of delicacy. The only thing that gave me pause was clumpy pasta, fresh but slightly undercooked.
Most cannelloni I’ve tried turn to mush. Linguine’s cannelloni were firm; I could cut them without the filling smooshing out. What filling, too, sausage and ricotta lightened with herbs and greens.
My chicken Milanese was another well-polished dish that showed restraint. A well-crumbed golden brown chicken filet was seasoned with garlic and capers, served atop greens, and a side of penne with bright tomato sauce. The only disappointing dish was gnocchi romano ($16.95), in a creamy, tomatoey sauce with sausage. The dumplings were gummy.
Second tip for navigating Linguine’s: eat greens. They’re all over Linguine’s menu, piled on bread with cheese for a Dandy Loaf ($5.95), in a selection of dandelion-bolstered chalkboard pastas ($17.95-$18.95), and tucked alongside pasta sides with entrees. If it’s not dandelions, it’s rapini, escarole or another green with a bitter note. Here they’re treated right – fresh vegetation blanched until toothsome but still firm, sautéed in a garlic and seasoned well.
Eating at Linguine’s made me realize that such greens rejuvenate the palate, cutting through the richness of so many pasta feasts. Plus, they’re good for you.
And a third note. At Linguine’s, the pastas don’t come on aircraft carrier-sized platters. The moderate servings are fine with me; I’d rather be thrilled once than full twice.
Two appetizers off the regular menu were deeply satisfying. Sautéed calamari with arugula, lemon, garlic and light cream ($13.95) would make a fine supper with bread. (Warm crusty bread and butter arrived before the meal.)
The squid, sautéed until tender, avoided rubberiness. The sauce, bolstered with capers, was lemony and restrained for a cream sauce. It was fortified with chickpeas, olives and more of those sweet, toasty roasted garlic cloves.
We ordered a stuffed artichoke ($10.95). Based on my earlier experiences with the species, I didn’t expect to like it. This one turned me around, with the right combination of fleshy bits at the bottom of the leaves and savory breadcrumb dressing tucked into each crevice. We did the whole artichoke ritual, scraping off the choke to get to the tender heart.
A Caesar salad ($9.95) sported freshly dressed romaine, balsamic drizzle, housemade croutons and shaved Parmesan with creamy, garlicky dressing on the side. Two anchovies were segregated on lettuce leaves so they could do no harm to the anchovy-phobic, another thoughtful touch.
Dessert included a cannoli in a rolled anise-scented pizzelle cookie instead of the usual deep-fried shell ($5.95), and banana cream pie ($4.95) that seemed sour somehow. But a creamy, jiggly panna cotta with blackberries and strawberries ($6.95) put us back on the right track, and a salted caramel gelato ($5.95) was deeply flavored, provoking a spate of spoon-vs.-spoon racing that ended before it got ugly.
My dinner showed how Desiderio has turned an impossible spot into a restaurant that’s pulling crowds at 15. A hands-on approach, with quality ingredients carefully cooked and presented with pride, helps Linguine’s beat the odds.