Middling Appetizers, Better Entrées at Polovina Italian Cafe

On the never-ending restaurant row that is Washington Avenue, it is easy to overlook Polovina Italian Cafe with its generic facade and mini-strip mall locale. Or, perhaps, people do look at Polovina and are confused. The menu features many red sauce Italian-American classics like chicken marsala, fettuccine alfredo, and eggplant parmesan, but there's also outlier dishes like cannelloni stuffed with chicken and vegetables and "straw and hay" (egg and spinach fettuccine tossed with mushrooms and peas in a cream sauce), which seem more adventurous if not more "authentic" Italian. Other parts of the menu suggest an over-eagerness to cater to broader palates. The build-your-own pizza section, for example, offers unconventional toppings such as avocado, crawfish, and shrimp, and the array of "signature" pastas are available in wheat, gluten-free, and spinach forms.

The latter offering particularly suggests a willingness to accommodate children and adults with special dining needs and in combination with the very casual opening dining space, initially leads you to conclude, "Okay, this is a place where I can take the whole family, even gluten-intolerant little Timmy and Mediterranean food-loathing Uncle Ralph."

But then there's the heavily advertised daily drink specials, which make you wonder if Tuesday, "Bourbon Night $3," is the best time to take the pee-wee football team for a post-game supper.

Anyhoo, while it's uncertain what type of restaurant experience Polovina is trying to provide, there are some gems on the menu that deserve a try. Not among them, however, is the $9 caprese salad, which includes four tough mini-slices of mozzarella cheese, a few limp basil leaves, and a mound of chopped tomatoes that are less than ripe. Also strangely absent is any oil and/or balsamic vinegar topping common to most versions of the caprese. Without the added moisture and flavor of those ingredients, the plate seemed that much blander and drier.

This very meh starter is easily forgotten when followed by one of Polovina's entrees (which generally tend to be more on point in terms of price and taste), especially the fragrant peppers rios, two over-sized roast red peppers bursting prawns, chunks of lump crab meat, sauteed onions, and parmesan and mozzarella cheese, and bathing in a piquant lemon butter sauce. The excess sauce nicely complements a side of sauteed spinach; however, some crusty Italian bread or even a side of pasta would be an even more welcome way in which to soak up the delicious extra juices.

Polovina Italian Cafe is charming but seems in the midst of an identity crisis that could easily be resolved by conducting a thorough menu audit, re-affirming its true culinary focus, and seriously pondering whether "Thursday rum night" is true to the ethos of an Italian cafe.

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