Sunday, February 17, 2008

Valentine's Dinner at Renato's

My husband and I have been going to Renato's Italian restaurant for special occasions for years. In fact, the restaurant first opened in 1978, the year we got married and moved to Fredericksburg. Back then, it was on Rt. 1, where Roberson’s Music is now (and yes, I’ve been around long enough to know the restaurant’s current building on William St. used to be the Happy Clam seafood restaurant). There’s nothing new or hip about Renato’s. There is absolutely no buzz about this to Fredericksburgers about their favorite restaurants, and I bet no one mentions Renato’s. Yet on a Friday night (yes, technically Valentine’s Day was Thursday, but good luck getting a reservation anywhere), the place was full. The Renato’s experience is old school dining all the way, but old school done well. The dining room is elegantly set with linen tablecloths, fresh flowers and candlelight, the service is impeccable, and the quality of the food is consistent. Of course, the fact that the menu has barely changed over the years makes consistency a lot easier to come by. Now generally speaking, we like chef-owned restaurants, where the chef flexes his or her creative muscles nightly, using the freshest seasonal ingredients, and yes, we like the kinds of dishes that have 27 different elements artfully arranged on the plate. That’s not Renato’s style. Renato’s does classic Italian cooking, mostly northern: homemade pastas, veal piccata, chicken Marsala, eggplant rollatini, scampi, lasagna and ravioli and gnocchi. No olive oil on a plate for bread...that’s too trendy. In fact, I imagine the dining experience here is not far from what it would have been like to go to a nice restaurant in any city in America in about 1960.

We shared an appetizer of tiny clams casino (an old fashioned recipe if there ever was one—but tasty!), then had soup and salad (nothing earth shaking there). My entree was gnocchi stuffed with crabmeat in a heavy white sauce. I really didn’t get how gnocchi could be stuffed, since they’re usually pretty small, but Renato’s does a giant gnocchi...more like an oversized ravioli out of gnocchi dough. Very rich. My husband had veal with green onions and mushrooms in a creamy tomato sauce...that’s more like it. In fact, you can’t really go wrong ordering any of the veal dishes here, all with super thin and tender meat. For dessert, his cannoli was a disappointment, but my white chocolate raspberry cheesecake with raspberry puree made up for it (yes, it was as good as it sounds).

To be honest, I suspect that what we like about this place has less to do with the food and more to do with our memories of all the romantic evenings spent here, starting back in our newlywed days, when the fancy restaurants in town were few, and our nights out in them rare. Still, I recommend that the next time you plan to go to Carrabba's (one of the better chain restaurants around, I have to admit), or the Olive Garden (perish the thought), consider a trip down William Street instead.

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