March 14, 2012

Italian Bistro Meets Greasy Dive Bar: Little Venice Ristorante Misses the Mark

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Dining outside of Ithaca can be a dangerous and thrilling adventure. During a recent excursion to Trumansburg, Little Venice Ristorante left me pleasantly surprised, but rather confused.

Located on 49 East Main Street in “T-burg” as the locals affectionately call it, Little Venice Ristorante is the polar opposite of what its quaint name would suggest. I was expecting to find a cute Italian bistro with a sharply dressed hostess, breadbaskets filled with crusty baguettes and classical music playing in the background. Instead, I was greeted with no less than eight televisions playing either ESPN SportsCenter or the night’s lottery numbers, a fully-stocked bar with a decorative Harley Davidson motorcycle on the wall and a rotating Labatt Blue sign above my head, the name glowing with bright neon lights.

My immediate reaction was to turn around and leave because I had obviously walked into the wrong place. However, seeing the “LV” logo emblazoned on practically every surface imaginable confirmed that we were in the correct venue, so my friends and I seated ourselves at a large wooden booth next to the bar.

Despite the fact that it was a Monday, we decided to order drinks to start out our dinner. Who cares if we had prelims to study for? With all-day happy hour specials offered every day of the week, Little Venice was practically begging us to drink, so obviously we had no choice but to oblige. The first of our two-for-one margaritas arrived in unassuming Bud Light pint glasses, and in the extremely dimly lit room, we could only make out the true identity of the drink by the heavily salted rims of our cups. Although the mediocre drinks tasted like they were made from a pre-packaged mix, the bottom line is that they were large, they were strong and we were happy campers.

Like the drinks, the food was generic. Little Venice Ristorante adopts the same view on food preparation as that of many reasonably priced chains, like the Olive Garden. This means that sadly, quality takes a backseat to quantity, and customers are served gigantic portions consisting of marginally palatable entrees. Any flavor inadequacies are easily remedied by the addition more butter or salt, resulting in food that is always acceptable, but rarely delicious.

The sauce on the fettuccine Alfredo was thin and watery, making the overall entrée extremely unappealing and not worthy of bringing the leftovers home for drunk eating. Even worse was the overcooked New York strip steak, the dryness of which warranted elongated sips from my margarita and the texture of which resembled a tasteless beef jerky. The gnocchi carne topped with Italian sausage was the best of the entrées, but was underseasoned and too buttery.

The saving grace of the meal proved to be the appetizer, a Little Venice invention called pasta nachos. Recommended to us by our friendly waitress, the pasta nachos were a delightful amalgamation of traditional Italian ingredients and bar-style food. Pieces of pasta were deep-fried to a crisp, and the smoothness of the chipotle pesto cream sauce, along with the saltiness of the sweet Italian sausage scattered on top, perfectly complemented the slightly greasy chip. The result was a delicious, albeit crudely unsophisticated mouthful of flavors and textures.

While the food was by no means delicious and the drinks were depressingly generic, there is something about Little Venice Ristorante for which I would brave the 20-minute drive out of Ithaca past the countless grazing cows and abandoned farms. While my prior expectations did not match up with reality, Little Venice surprised me by exceeding them. Yes, the restaurant’s name is horribly misleading, but after I shook off the initial feeling that I had been maliciously hoodwinked in some way, I immersed myself in the simplistic charm of the place. Maybe “charm” is not the right term to use – this would imply that there is some underlying spark, some force or energy, that draws people into the restaurant, and this is simply not accurate. There is nothing about Little Venice that would induce you to come in; rather, it is only after entering the restaurant that you realize that this is where you wanted to be all along.

Original Author: Michelle Kim