A Place of His Own

There comes a moment in everyone's life when it comes time to leave home and make one's own way in the world. For someone in a family-run business, that moment might prove to be as challenging as it is crucial. After all, having the legacy of a successful dynasty behind you when you're trying to establish your own identity can probably seem both a blessing and a curse. For Jack Laurenzo, second oldest offspring of Ninfa Laurenzo, leaving the nest has meant staying true to the calling he loves -- hospitality -- while opening a restaurant that's as different from his mom's fajita and margarita empire as can be imagined.

Jack Laurenzo's is a place that gives away the Laurenzo clan's Italian-American roots (Laurenzo is a Neapolitan name) -- which is not to say that it's an Italian restaurant. This is the food, Laurenzo says, that he grew up eating, especially when he visited his father's native New England: lots of meat and pasta, plus some Gulf of Mexico seafood he's added for good measure. It's like an established neighborhood restaurant you'd find in Chicago or New York; Laurenzo himself makes the comparison between his menu and the Palm's. (The caricatures lining the walls at Laurenzo's place invite further comparison to that businessmen's refuge.)

Steaks, although less numerous on Jack Laurenzo's menu than pastas, clearly reign supreme here. And well they should in a restaurant characterized by its owner as a place where he hopes a fellow can bring his wife or girlfriend or client for a decent dinner without shredding his pocketbook. Fortunately, the steaks' quality lives up to their prominence as the centerpiece of the menu. A beef tenderloin in a mushroom port wine sauce was almost fork tender -- I hardly needed to chew the hefty bites I carved from the generous slab of meat. Silver dollar-sized button mushroom slices were scattered over the top and swam in a lush brown gravy. A New York strip al dulce was equally savory and lived up to the sweetness promised by its name. Chunks -- not dainty slices, mind you -- of red, yellow and green bell peppers, roasted to the just-limp, puckery-skin stage, added welcome color to a manly sized portion of chewy, tasty strip steak swaddled in a thin, sweet gravy. The only problem? With each of these steaks, I questioned whether they had actually been cooked all the way to the requested medium-rare (there is room for interpretation, but these, by my book, were downright rare).

Aside from the requisite steak accompaniment of a basic Roquefort salad made up of good sturdy lettuces (no foofy field greens here) plus an oversized portion of blue cheese, that just about summarizes what you can expect from much of the food at Jack Laurenzo's: big-guy portions for meat and starch lovers. Consider the side dishes that were served with the steaks one night. The mashed potatoes were goopy and peppery, with not a trace of fluff anywhere to be found. That's not a complaint: fluffiness just wouldn't seem apropos at this joint. A battered, fried triangular pasta cake, with a dusting of Parmesan cheese on the outside and an abundance of white creaminess on the inside, sprouted tentacles of linguini when cut into. Here in one little unit were presented all the basic bachelor food groups: cheese, starch, cream, breading -- and it was deep-fried to boot -- but even I, more than the ex-bachelor I was with, wanted to abscond with about a dozen of these babies for a few private midnight binges.

Another terrific guy-style dish was the appetizer of an Italian sausage in puff pastry, which just begs to be consumed with a frosty pilsner glass of Arctic cold beer. The sleeve of pastry was buttery and tender, and it encased a sausage link colorfully flecked with seasonings and tasty enough to be worthy of its homemade status. Mango chutney and hot mustard were the perfect yin-and-yang companions to this fancied-up hot dog, which actually made my main course.

Lest you diners with more delicate palates think you won't be able to find sustenance here refined enough for your taste buds, let me tell you about at least one dish: the linguini fruitti de mare, sort of a seafood stew over pasta. Don't be misled: even this relatively innocuous and temperate-sounding affair -- breading and cream-free as it is -- is by no means wimpy. Its centerpiece is calamari rings of a size that bring to mind the possibility that giant sea creatures really might exist. Jumbo shrimp and baby shrimp are easily unearthed in there, as are scallops and clams and mussels. Colorfully sauteed and still-crisp veggies help to break the meat and starch mold and also help to bring this item into the realm of meals that, unlike red-blooded steaks and fried pasta temptations, needn't cause a well-intentioned diner spasms of guilt for having eaten. But, in typical Laurenzian fashion, the marinara sauce, instead of being the watery broth one might expect from a bowl of ciappino-fashion stew, sneaks up on you with a robust and spicy nip.

A lunch special of chicken tortellini came in a bellarosa sauce, which, behind its showy name, sounds like it would be the invention of a kid playing house or a harried parent throwing together leftovers: it's simply a combination of marinara and Alfredo sauces. And it works! In taste and texture, it was rich and thick and pillowy, but its pinky-orange hue must have had something to do with my impression that the whole dish was really quite suitable for a light lunch.

What turned out to be one of my favorite indulgences at Jack Laurenzo's is available at lunch only: the meatball sandwich (the Xeroxed menu inserts at lunchtime betray the fact that Laurenzo's still fiddling with the lunch menu, which he says he "hates" in its current incarnation). The theme here is hugeness. A huge French roll, crispy on the outside, tender inside, is sliced lengthwise and bedecked with three or four huge spicy meatballs and more of those huge mushroom slices. A ladleful of marinara sauce drowns everything, but I still managed to eat most of it with my hands.

In a passing nod to the dainty, a handful of delicately browned, ethereally crisped homemade potato chips dusted with a restrained sprinkling of Parmesan cheese grace the small portion of the plate not taken up by the sandwich.

Even at that meal, I managed to get my greens -- in the form of a warm, wet spinach and artichoke dip. Mild and comforting, with plenty of stringy spinach and big chunks of artichoke hearts, this stuff was great -- not only on the accompanying butter-yellow ovals of toast, but equally so when slathered onto Laurenzo's homemade breadsticks, which are served hot to the touch and, you guessed it, glistening with melted butter.

Laurenzo will still be affiliated with the Ninfa's empire on a consulting basis. The main difference, he says, is that he won't be going in to the office every day. He's learned his lessons well during the last 20 years that he's spent cutting his restaurateur's teeth. And he's carried at least one specific concept from the empire that he helped build to his new place: the foolproof notion that one way to satisfy customers is to serve up generous portions of hearty foods, which, consumed in enough quantity, have a fat content high enough to make them good hangover preventives. Aside from that, it's clear that Jack Laurenzo is cutting the apron strings.

Jack Laurenzo's, 5589 Richmond Avenue, 266-4191.

Jack Laurenzo's:
New York strip al dulce, $16.95;
spinach artichoke dip, $5.95;
linguini fruitti de mare, $12.95;
meatball sandwich, $4.95.

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