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Restaurant Tours: ristorante of the moment

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People don't ask "Do you want to eat Italian tonight?" anymore. Now everything's Italian. Spaghetti joints have been replaced by ristorantes--and the trattorias that are supposed to be cheaper but aren't--and pasta comes in every shape imaginable, even radiators. I don't miss the limited menus of the past, but I still have an occasional craving for spaghetti with meatballs and garlic bread so potent you could only eat it if your date did too.

It seems like every other week a new Italian restaurant opens, and they all attract the same crowd. A crowd that looks like its charter flight to Las Vegas was just grounded. A crowd that likes things big--big gold Rolexes, big cars, big condos, big portions.

Centro is where they're all packing it in right now. Located on Wells between Huron and Superior, it's owned by Alex Dana, whose Rosebud Cafe has been tying up Taylor Street traffic for years. The chef's the same, the menu's similar, and the desserts are still made at the old place.

The Rosebud Cafe was always a mob scene, but it's nothing compared to the huddled masses waiting to be fed at Centro. Of course Centro is more conveniently located than Taylor Street, but what isn't? After its first few weeks, the management gave up on taking reservations except for dinner at 5 or 5:30. After that, you're on your own with the rest of the crowd. But these people are fighting for the chance to wait. They sip their Pinot Grigio, people-watch, and kiss-kiss like they're in Beverly Hills.

During the summer it all starts at the outdoor cafe, where the customers watch the passersby and even more passersby watch the customers. Once inside, you stand with everyone else and wait for a table at the brass rail of the huge bar that takes up one side of the front room.

Once you get a table, reaching it involves negotiating a gaper's block in either of the two rooms. Smokers are supposedly relegated to the front, but the back's not much better. It seems like your table is the only true non-smoking area. And whether you're seated in the front room or the back, the acoustics ensure that you hear everyone's conversation but your own.

Centro's portions are enormous: one serving has enough food for four. Designer doggy bags are the logical next step, and this crowd would carry them with pride.

The food is very good, though not unusual except for an addictive Umbrian Bread Salad (a variation of bruschetta, the Italian worker's midday snack): halved Italian bread topped with chopped fresh tomatoes, basil, black olives, Italian salami, and provolone cheese and drenched in a garlicky olive oil ($5.95). Another exceptional offering is Melanzane alla Napolatano, an appetizer the size of an entree: it's seasoned eggplant stuffed with ricotta cheese, light and delicious in a tomato sauce ($4.95).

Entrees include several pasta choices. On one visit I ordered baked cavatelli in tomato sauce with mozzarella cheese ($12.95) and was able to plan a dinner party around the leftovers. The special that evening was linguine with asparagus and scallops ($14.95)--with scallops that looked like they'd been on anabolic steroids served in huge skillets by staggering waiters who could have used some steroids themselves.

Along with the pastas, several chicken, fish, and veal dishes are available, including the usual chicken marsala and vesuvio, veal milanese, and mussels marinara. If only one of you orders a dinner salad, that's what you get; but if two of you do, a huge bowl arrives full of greens.

Dessert choices are uninspired: the same old cannoli, zuppa inglese, and cheesecake, along with the ubiquitous tiramisu. My friend Laney has high cholesterol, poor digestion, and a tendency to bloat. She special-ordered angel hair pasta with no salt, no spices or herbs, nothing but olive oil and fresh vegetables. It arrived swimming in a chicken broth anyway, and even though she drained most of it off, she came down with her usual two-day allergic reaction to MSG.

Another friend substituted angel hair pasta for cavatelli, but didn't realize until the bill came that she was charged two dollars for the service. When she complained, she was told "Sometimes it's two, sometimes it's four, sometimes it's six." Could Alex Dana's commodity-trader clientele have put him into pasta futures?

Many of Centro's customers are regulars. The management admits to seating them ahead of everyone else. They're heavy hitters, "in" people whose restaurant migration is followed lemming-like by other would-be "in" people so that a restaurant's popularity becomes self-perpetuating. It's popular because it's popular.

Appetizers range from $3 to $9.95, soups and salads $2.95 to $5.95, entrees $7.95 to $23.95, and desserts $1.75 to $4. Dinner for two will run you $60 and up. If your table splits an entree, or if you just order one of the bounteous appetizers, you can eat for less and still be satisfied.

Centro, at 710 N. Wells, serves lunch from 11 to 3 daily, and dinner from 5 to 10:30 Monday through Thursday, and 5 to 11:30 Friday and Saturday; they're closed Sunday. They take major credit cards and have valet parking. For more information call 988-7775.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Phara Fisco.

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