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Family Fare and Hidden Gems at Cavatore

The tortellini is delicious, while the Caesar salad is made at your table.
Leonel Nerio

Go behind the scenes of Cavatore by checking out our slideshow.

I'll admit it; the tortellini con panna took me by surprise. I'd ordered it as a lark, a sore thumb on an appetizer menu full of the usual red-sauce favorites, all suspicious stalwarts on a Sysco order list. I wasn't expecting to find it the best thing on the menu. A dozen or so wrinkled buttons of pasta, lightly napped in a sauce far more elegant than the menu's "creamy Alfredo" promise/warning, I knew from the minute they hit the table that I'd made the right choice.

When it comes to filled pasta, there's a lot to be said for judging a book by its cover. Too-thick pasta will look it, a stiff and formidable shell enclosing its contents like an injection-molded model you might expect to find in a child's play-set. When its slip of pasta is handled delicately, it forms to the pocked terrain of its filling like a second skin, showing you that it will be supple and yielding under your teeth. These were just so, a pleasantly silky and slightly eggy skin of pasta holding a loose and finely milled filling of minced veal. Subtle and slightly milky, it was a deft and delightful dish that deserves far more prominent menu placement.

Of course, it's possible that there are more such hidden gems among the 40-something offerings scattered across five pages and ten categories, but you'll have to suss them out.

Cavatore has had a long run near the corner of Ella and T.C. Jester. The building — a disassembled and site-rebuilt barn from the Texas hill country — tacks on 100 years of history, making for a place that feels like it's always been a part of the neighborhood. An open and airy expanse of worn wood and kitsch that has been home-away-from-home to families seeking a bit of Italian comfort since 1984, Cavatore is very much a neighborhood institution. It's the kind of place you went to with your parents, celebrating a school play or some other minor milestone. It's the place you take your kids because it's the place your parents took you. You might even bump into your parents; they still eat at Cavatore. For better or for worse, I don't really think they're coming for the food.

The lasagna, its too-tough mantle of processed mozzarella cheese pinning down sheets of slightly overcooked pasta and a somewhat muddled and mushy filling of beef and red sauce, tasted as it did in my memory from the last time I'd had it, probably five years ago. I'd wager it tasted pretty much the same back in 1984. It was serviceable then, and now, though your nonna wouldn't call it hers.

She might, however, claim the manicotti freschi. Tender sheets of pasta wrapped around a filling of mild ricotta cheese, bathed in a simple and bright tomato sauce, it was a surprisingly light and lithe take on what could so easily have been stodgy. Still, it might improve with a bit less. Less ricotta inside; a shallower bath of sauce out; and a lighter touch with that too-thick, too-resilient drapery of mozzarella that shows up again and again.

The same can be said of the two alla parmigiana options. Both chicken and eggplant arrive breaded and fried, swaddled in sauce and weighed down with cheese. The chicken might have been crispy once, but by the time it reached me, the sauce had taken its toll. The cutlets were juicy, tender, and properly seasoned under that wilting crust, though I really missed the textural interplay I crave in chicken parm.

The same can be said of the eggplant version, which was the worse for wear. The kitchen should learn to salt and drain the slices before they're dredged; it's a relatively simple step that works wonders for the nightshade's texture. Without it, you'll get what I got, which was a soggy mess. I ate the chicken despite its flaws but couldn't bring myself to finish the eggplant.

Of course, the kids at the table had a different take on their meals. They gorged on the fried cheese and fried calamari appetizers, though one of them had a minor breakdown when she realized the tentacle-looking bits she'd been crunching on were, indeed, tentacles. How she'd mistaken them, I'm not entirely certain. Nor am I certain what they found so appealing, except to say that they are kids, and the food was fried and crunchy and well salted. I found the bocconcino di formaggio stodgy, the cheese not properly melted and the perfectly compacted form a troubling but expected indication of a denominazione di origine controllata somewhere near the freezer. The calamari fared better, and the marinara in which we dipped them, the same simple sauce that graces many of the dishes, played its part well.

I did not love my daughter's choice of ravioli con carne, finding it about the same as the lasagna, though I certainly wouldn't call the thick, rounded discs of pasta overcooked. Nor did I care for my order of saltimbocca alla romana, a dish recommended by our waiter. Dry medallions topped slices of prosciutto and a pile of perfectly good sautéed spinach, the whole thing overly salted and missing the sage required of the dish. I thought I detected a hint of rosemary. Sauces tend to be separated here, leaving unfortunate and discordant pools of this and that clamoring for attention. It's not a joyful noise.

I found that repeated on a grainy and overdone bistecca alla fiorentina and on an otherwise presentable Snapper della casa (another staff recommendation), its well considered pricks of caper overshadowed by a lemon butter sauce that tasted alternately thinly sharp and greasy. There were a few spots where things had held together, the sauce light and luxurious, as it should have been. Taken with a forkful of bronzed mushrooms and some pleasantly dewy fish, it showed what might have been.

Dessert was sweet. That's about it, so if that's your thing, feel free. I wouldn't bother.

Lest you think this is all doom and gloom, though, let me assure you that we had a fine time. The place itself can't help but charm, and the waitstaff is affable, if a bit slow. If you're dining with a group, perhaps you might enjoy the "wine room," a narrow shotgun shack of a space set off by swinging doors, its close quarters perfect for a slightly noisy group that doesn't mind proximity. You can play a genially low-tech version of SongPop, seeing who can place the live pianist's versions of jazz standards and modern pop tunes most quickly. We caught Autumn Leaves, Linus and Lucy, Take Five, and what was either the Greatest American Hero theme song or Need You Now.

I'll go back, too. Next time, though, I've got a game plan. I haven't mentioned the table-side Caesar yet, and I'd be remiss if I didn't. It's an excellent specimen, with a savory current carried by cheese, Worcestershire and smashed anchovies. Perked up with a firm dollop of Dijon mustard and spiked with fresh garlic and just a bit of Tabasco sauce, it's about as fine a version as you'll get, with the added perk of theater. My kids were enthralled, so much so that they couldn't wait to snag a few bites, paste of tiny fish be damned. I even asked for a few of the filets on the side, the better to demonstrate their importance to the salad. The kids were apt pupils.

That salad is part of the game plan, as is the tortellini appetizer we talked about earlier. The salad splits nicely between two (or more), but you'll want your own pasta. With those two, I could make a light but satisfying supper, one for which I'd gladly return. While you'll most likely come to Cavatore because that's what you've always done, I'm coming back for those two. They're that good.

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