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Excellent food, service mean that, even after 20 years, the restaurant hasn't lost a step
What's hot and new this year is often under new ownership or closed the next. But where others have failed, Ariani has thrived - for 20 years to be exact.
Chef/owner Dario Zuljani deserves much of the credit. The ebullient chef has stuck to his Istrian-peninsula roots - a northern region of Italy with flavors from nearby Croatia, Serbia and even Germany - serving not only pasta but schnitzels and hearty meat dishes, as well.
Zuljani makes regular rounds through his dining room to greet his patrons, many of whom have visited loyally for more than a decade, and to make sure his northern Italian fare is up to his exacting standards.
Zuljani's dedication has rubbed off on his wait staff.
Despite a marked Irish brogue, our server's knowledge of the restaurant's menu bordered on encyclopedic. He had the perfect suggestion for a reasonably priced Shiraz-Cabernet blend that paired nicely with our dishes.
His description of a stacked mozzarella appetizer had my mouth watering, as did the dish itself.
Thick slices of fresh, homemade-that-morning mozzarella topped crusty slices of bread. Tomato, paper-thin prosciutto and a syrup-y aged balsamic finished the dish beautifully.
An order of calamari with tender rings of squid and a tasty homemade marinara was simpler but also well executed.
For entrees we settled on some Ariani classics, including the lambuco - Zuljani's take on osso bucco. Braised low and slow, the meat fell away from the two lamb shanks with the touch of a fork. A pool of rich gravy kept the dish delectably moist and well seasoned.
Speaking of moist, there was the filet mignon Wellington.
I'm not a huge fan of the filet cut, but when it's perfectly cooked, topped with sauteed mushrooms and cheese, and wrapped in puff pastry, how can I complain? The result was decadent and delicious. A side of Ariani's classic mashed potatoes and garlicky, sauteed spinach finished the entree.
The risotto with shrimp and asparagus was lighter.
From the chef's special 20th anniversary menu, this classic was served when Ariani first opened in 1989. At $15.95 for a half-dozen succulent shrimp over an ample bed of creamy, asparagus-laden risotto, the price was from 1989, too.
Our knowledgeable waiter was just as adept with the ins and outs of good service. He had that much-appreciated knack for knowing when we needed something before we'd even realized it.
He also walked us through the dessert menu helping us settle on a delicious, amaretto-infused take on tiramisu and Ariani's classic Napoleon.
Where Ariani's food and service is timeless, its dining room shows its age with the same muraled walls and faux finishes it had more than 10 years ago. But it's a comfortable stodginess - one that's easy to overlook after a great glass of wine and a delicious meal.
Ariani is proof that if you're kind to your patrons, they can be kind right back. Or maybe it's just one of a kind?
After 20 years of success, I'd say both.
- Jean Le Boeuf is the nom de plume of a local food lover.