By Katharine Shilcutt
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One of the many things I like about Montrose is its defiant rejection of cookie-cutter, franchised theme restaurants. It's a source of neighborhood pride, and rightly so. Neartown dining patterns seem to skip straight from the hiply scruffy ethnic joints like Taqueria La Jaliciense or Niko Niko's to the swanning spreads at the opposite end of the spectrum, the justifiably high-priced Urbana, Mark's and Tony Ruppe's.
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It's not until you get to know the neighborhood that you realize there really is a middle ground, a secretly suburban range of eateries where the locals hang out, or sometimes hide out. These are independently owned and individualistic cafes, I know, but they fill that franchise void. So where do you go in Montrose when you're feeling not so urban, when you don't want to be overstimulated by exotic seasonings or swanky surroundings? One answer is to hole up in a place like Riva's Italian Restaurant.
Riva's is comfortable, and comforting. It's comfortable in that it boasts off-street parking, linen tablecloths and a pretty patio festooned with white twinkly lights. (I'll admit I'm a sucker for those little lights; they remind me of all the lightning bugs we sprayed to extinction a decade ago.) And comforting in that the menu is distinctly unchallenging and the atmosphere is downright neighborly. Seems like the staffers recognize every patron who walks in, and even remember the favorite drink or dish of each one. On this familiar turf, half the customers don't even glance at the menu.
"I don't know what I want," fretted a young man dining alone at the table next to mine. I remember whining like that in my grandmother's kitchen, precisely because she always knew what food would make me feel better. "Don't worry, I know what you want," the waiter soothed him. "You want the penne with prosciutto." Reassured, the young man launched into a litany of urban complaint addressed to the female couple across the aisle. He just couldn't face the clubs tonight, he explained, but he didn't feel like sitting home alone, either. "Oh, I know just what you mean," one of the ladies commiserated. "That's why we're here, too."
When you're down on your luck in love, needing a bit of a wallow in self-pity, there's nothing like a steaming plate of pasta. Nothing fancy, but loaded with plenty of therapeutic butter or cream or cheese or, even better, all three. On Riva's reassuringly middle-of-the-road menu, there are lots of pity pastas. It's a tad pricey, to be sure, ranging from an $8.95 angel-hair plate to a $12.95 shrimp fettuccine, but the fee includes a modest tossed salad and a basket of reasonably fresh garlic bread. The lasagna casserole ($9.95) is the perfect case in point: layers and layers of noodles slathered with a sweet tomato sauce and thickly paved with a stretchy mixture of mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses. This isn't an act of culinary daredevilry, but it's good and gloppy and satisfying all the same.
Of course, not every night is kvetch night at Riva's. I'm told the owners, brothers Mike and Joseph Sibouyeh, moved the restaurant from Memorial to Montrose a few years back in search of a livelier, younger crowd, and it looks as if they found it here on Missouri. On weekends the pace picks up considerably, and you'll spot the occasional inner-city celebrity. Councilwoman Annise Parker has been seen here; so has hizzoner Mayor Lee Brown. Riva's regulars have worked out a simple seating plan: Stay inside if you want to gossip with light enough to see by, outside on the shadowy patio if you want to make out with your date.
The food orders get a little more ambitious on weekends, too, branching out from uncomplicated pastas into steaks or veal or salmon. This, I've found, can be a mistake. We tried the shrimp mozzarella ($13.95), for example, and were disappointed by the stingy serving size of tough shrimp doused in a listless marinara sauce; this dish cut a little too close to Olive Garden territory for our taste. Two of the appetizers were marred by strangely mismatched and aggressive sauces: The meaty portobello mushrooms ($5.95), for instance, were beautifully grilled but drenched with a too-strong vinaigrette reminiscent of bottled salad dressing, and the softball-size baked crab cake ($7.95) was drowned in what tasted like ranch dressing with a whopping load of garlic.
So I was distracted when the house salads arrived, trying to detect a resemblance between the two dressings on offer, a ranch and an Italian, and those appetizer sauces. (I'm still not sure.) It's a decent salad, I suppose, once you separate the good greens, tomatoes and cucumbers from an awful lot of hard, white iceberg-lettuce core, but there was another nasty surprise lurking in the bowl: limp, slippery slices of cantaloupe and honeydew melon. Had there been prosciutto, I could see incorporating the melon, but there wasn't, so I really must object to this arbitrary accessorizing.
The not-particularly-Italian pork chops ($15.95), on the other hand, were quite good. The pair were lightly breaded and seasoned with tarragon, with crisp bits of panfried fat around the edges just the way I like it. I had worried about the "apple mint sauce" that the menu promised -- too often mint sauce tastes like aftershave to me -- and was relieved to find it strictly apples without the faintest hint of mint. Turns out the really weird part was the potato pancake, which was absolutely grass-green with dill. The patty was fried crisp outside, but wet and mushy inside, which threw me into texture shock. Next time I see bright green potatoes, I think I'll pass. This time, I consoled myself with the letter-perfect side dish of creamy fettuccine.
The dessert list varies from night to night, but you can generally get a chocolate mousse cake ($3.75) or a crème brûlée ($3.75). The cake is three layers of quite light chocolate cake, saved from tipping over the line into dryness by the fluffy mousse in between. The brûlée, well, that was probably our own fault: We asked for it to go. Don't try this at home. Our waiter brought the foam box to the table practically in tears. "We tried really hard to get this into a box and keep it pretty," he said with obvious distress. "But this is the best we could do." We peered into the box and saw a wreckage of custard chunks, the once proud and crackly caramel skin sadly stuck to the foam in several places. Ah, well, it was still a card-carrying comfort food to eat with a spoon.
Riva's Italian Restaurant, 1117 Missouri, (713)529-3450.
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