By Jason Gatsby, TSB Chow Hound
I can remember my first trip to New York City like it was yesterday. I was a young boy amazed by a city with so much diversity. I’ll always have the image of Little Italy engrained into my head. Block by block, I walked past rustic Italian restaurants reminiscent of those seen in old gangster films. The first time I passed Ruggeri’s Restaurante I was reminded of my journey to Little Italy. Indicative of the 1920’s, Ruggeri’s consists of a dim-lit dining room with century old brick walls and white tablecloths. Upon entering the time warp, the smells of garlic, basil and tomatoes greeted me, but I couldn’t help but think I might find a gun hidden behind the toilet, waiting for a member of the Corleone family. Ruggeri’s certainly has the classic feel that diners think of when it comes to Italian food.
Tom Ruggeri is no stranger to restaurants. Ruggeri’s in Dallas, off of Royal Lane, is a Dallas staple and has been around for decades.
While Ruggeri’s Restorante in McKinney has been open just over a year, I have dined there several times, and I always approach the restaurant with an open mind and an empty stomach. Oh yeah, the empty stomach part – that’s imperative. My stomach wasn’t empty for long, and it’s almost impossible to enjoy a three-course meal when the entrees should be accompanied with a snow shovel and pitch fork. Portions have to be large considering the prices range form $17 for pasta and up to $40 for a 16 oz. veal chop.
Ruggeri’s is considered fine dining and its service was no slouch. My server had few tables in his section but never missed a beat when his service was required. Welcoming and gracious, he was very attentive to our group. Questions were answered without hesitation, plates were cleared, drinks were refilled, and the appropriate silverware was always on the table.
The restaurant does have a full bar, and offers wine by the bottle, but if your table isn’t in agreement on a bottle, there are a few varietal house wines offered by the glass.
The menu is rather large with many options to choose from. If a diner wants to partake in every course, arrive hungry or come with a few friends to share. Due to the size of the menu, whenever it came down to making a decision, I found myself anxiously weighing the options. Keeping it simple, we kept with the theme and stuck to the classics. A diner can never go wrong with the pleasant Calamari Fritta (9.95$), lightly crusted and deep fried, tender calamari served with marina sauce and lemon. The Bruschetta Mialno (7.95$) was disappointing. Served on barely toasted garlic bread with an olive forward taste on the palate it wasn’t was I was expecting. (While I enjoy olives they are not mentioned on the menu as an ingredient in the bruschetta.)
Tasting a variety of salads, my group and I tried the Caesar (7.95$), Chopped Italian (8.95$), and Mozzarella Caprese Aromatica (8.95$). The Ceasar was prepared in what the menu reads as “Classic Roman Tradition,” but I’m not sure what that means considering the Caesar Salad was invented by an Italian immigrant in Tijuana, Mexico in 1924. The hearty Italian Chopped salad consisted of Italian dressing with slices of salami, mortadella, hearts of palm, and artichoke hearts. While tasty, the salad is essentially the Ruggeri’s Antipasto Misto in salad form. The caprese salad was different than your usual caprese salad. Instead of the common oil and balsamic dressing, Ruggeri’s used a basil vinaigrette. A nice twist on the caprese, the dish needed a sweet component that balsamic usually provides to balance it out.
Already feeling full, I looked at the long list of pasta, veal, beef, chicken, and fish entrees. Every section is filled with dishes of bold red sauces, rich cream sauces, butter, and béarnaise selections. One has to be strategic about decision making if you want to indulge in desert without going into cardiac arrest.
The entrees may be enticing and read like mouth-watering masterpieces, but they fell short of expectations. After the first two courses the food took a turn for the worse. Quantity can never replace quality, and I don’t care how large the portion is, if the food isn’t up to par then it’s not worth $25.
The Veal Oscar ($25.95) was covered in a broken béarnaise sauce. Instead of looking silky and creamy, the dish appeared as though it were drowning in fat.
The lasagna was no different. Lasagna is an Italian staple in most restaurants, and similar to pizza it is hard to muddle up lasagna to the point of not wanting to consume it, but unappetizing it was. Ruggeri’s Lasagna Verde Casa Reccia ($16.95) could barely hold itself together amongst extruding meat, cheese, and oil.
We were off to a poor start. I wanted so badly to enjoy an entrée, so I asked what the staff what they deemed the “best option” on the menu. I was told the Portabella Ravioli ($16.95), pictured at right, was a house favorite. I was served three “jumbo” raviolo topped with Marsala wine and mushroom sauce. The filling was flat and lacked the depth of the mushroom flavor, but the sauce was bold with enough cream to have my heart skip a beat.
The Chicken Parmigiano ($17.95) was the quite good – the tender, lighty breaded chicken was not overwhelmed by a thick layer of crust. Unfortunately the pasta was overcooked and could barely hold on to the marina sauce.
The table favorite was the Manicotti e Pomodori ($15.50). The classic crepes were filled with ricotta cheese and covered in the “roasted” tomato sauce – what’s not to like about this dish, which was hands down, the best of the evening.
While not noted, most entrees included a side of green beans. Not necessarily seasonal, but I suppose it’s important to include some kind of vegetable amongst the array of richness to add some variety and color to the plate.
Loosening my belt, I cleared some room for desert. The ricotta based, New York-style, Amaretto Cheesecake ($6) “family” recipe was a nice a finish to my meal Although I must confess to being able to pick up a hint of “refrigerator flavor” with each bite, it was dense, with just the right touch of Amaretto, towering on a graham cracker crust.
Before entering a food coma, I couldn’t help but notice how quiet the restaurant remained. On a Friday night at 7:30, many tables were empty as servers and bussers loitered in the dining room, appearing to be ready for customers that were absent. Maybe other diners have realized what I have; Ruggeri’s isn’t what it used to be. As a diner, I wouldn’t mind sitting at the bar, having a cocktail and sharing an appetizer or two, but I no longer want to take the chance on spending an excessive amount of money on a lackluster meal.
Classics are classics, and they will always be a safety net on any menu, but as time changes so does food. Ruggeri’s, please enter the 21st century. Introduce some new menu items and hire a chef for your McKinney kitchen to guarantee quality control.
TSB’s Chow Hound attended culinary school in San Francisco, one of the most influential food cities in the U.S.., where food and wine are idolized and border on an obsession that comes close to a cult following. While there, he worked in a number of award winning kitchens which are nationally known amongst well-versed foodies.
Overall: 1 and a half star
Food: 1 and a half star
Cocktails: 1 and a half star
Service: three and stars
Atmosphere: 1.5 stars
Price $$$ – $$$$
FOUR STARS = Extraordinary; THREE STARS = Excellent; TWO STARS = Good; ONE STAR = Fair; NO STARS = Poor
$ = Inexpensive: entrees $10 and under; $$ = Moderate: $11-$17; $$$ = Expensive: $18-$24; $$$$ = Very Expensive: more than $25