As Americans living at ground zero of post-industrial capitalism, I suppose it’s in our DNA to lust after new things. The quest for new stuff is ongoing and endless: new houses, new cars, new clothes, new celebrities, new gadgets, new games, new boobs, new bodies. If there is anything truly distinctive about Americans, it’s our perpetual desire for the next new thing.
Columns like this one are no exception to that urge. I mostly write about'and assume that people want to read about'new restaurants, food trends and so on. But sometimes it’s good to recognize and appreciate what we already have. After all, my old mustard-yellow 1970 short-bed stepside pickup is a helluva lot more fun to drive than the late model, fully computerized foreign-made sedan I also own. And I’d prefer my oldest pair of broken-down cowboy boots to a shiny new pair of Kenneth Coles any day. So as a respite from the merry-go-round of new, newer and newest, I decided to kick it old-school recently and visited one of Utah’s more enduring eateries: Rino’s Italian Ristorante.
Rino’s has been a staple of the Salt Lake City scene for about twice as long as I’ve been here: 26 years. In the current era of “here today, gone tomorrow,” that’s a very successful restaurant run'yet it’s something of a mystery as to who actually dines there. Most of my foodie friends and colleagues only reluctantly admit to liking Rino’s, as though such a confession would result in their automatic enrollment in AARP. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that; I’m getting close myself.) But when I once asked on behalf of an inquiring reader no less an Italian food authority than Tony Caputo where to get a good plate of eggplant Parmesan, he directed me to Rino’s.
Maybe that’s the problem. The fact that an old-time favorite like eggplant Parmesan ($14.99) even exists on the Rino’s menu would probably send trend-spotters scurrying elsewhere for food infused with rosemary and saffron-scented truffle oil. Call me old-fashioned, but it makes me really happy that a meal at Rino’s begins with a basket of warm, crisp bread and soft butter'not saucers of olive oil and balsamic vinegar'although I’m certain the folks at Rino’s would be happy to accommodate your oil-and-vinegar needs if asked.
It’s the time of year when nature is beginning to show its stuff at the little old A-frame house that is Rino’s. With each summer come fresh garden herbs and produce from Rino Dimeo’s home greenhouse and garden, along with the grapevines, flowers, melons and more that envelop al fresco diners during warm weather. According to Dimeo’s longtime restaurant partner Hoss Takmil, this summer will also bring a new, onsite garden to Rino’s, located on the south side of the restaurant. You can’t get much closer to the source of your food than that!
In case you’re wondering about his name, Hoss is not a common name in Iran, whence Takmil emigrated long ago. Before Rino’s even existed'when Dimeo and Takmil were both working together in another Salt Lake City restaurant'the owner christened the young Persian with the moniker “Hoss,” since he was unable to pronounce Takmil’s real first name (neither can I). He was named after Bonanza’s Hoss Cartwright, and it stuck.
A wickedly hot, bubbling order of escargot ($9.99) prepared in the classic Continental style with butter, fresh garlic and Italian parley is a good place to begin a meal at Rino’s. The plump, gray-brown snails match the restaurant’s dark old paintings and furnishings, which include an antique pump organ in the restaurant’s entrance. And a generous bowl of tiny (nearly cockle-size), steamed clams ($14.99) in a simple butter-wine broth is exactly the way I like to get dinner started at Rino’s, eventually sopping up the leftover clam juices, broth and the escargot’s garlicky butter with torn chunks of bread. There’s something about Rino’s that encourages eating with the hands.
However, you’ll need a fork to tackle the thick, al dente fettuccine bathed in Rino’s rich Bolognese sauce of ground veal, beef and pork, all braised with herbs, tomato, a hint of cream and grilled Italian sausage on the side ($16.99). It’s a dish so completely satisfying you’d bet your bottom dollar that someone’s Italian grandmother had made it.
The best bargain on the Rino’s menu is the combination special ($21.99), which allows customers to sample chicken piccata and shrimp scampi in one dish, along with a delicious side of carbonara-style pasta in a light sauce of sautÃ©ed onions, ham and cream. The shrimp scampi was absolutely splendid, large, tender shrimp swimming in garlic and butter'a reminder of how superb and dramatic such a simple dish can be. And the lemony sauce of the chicken piccata was a perfect balance of lemon, butter, capers and parsley. Again, very simple, yet totally delectable.
For me, the only dip in Rino’s road is the bland mÃ©lange of veggies served as side dishes. I’d much prefer country-style broccoli florets sautÃ©ed with garlic, or artichoke hearts cooked the same way. However, Rino’s signature bread pudding with hot rum sauce ($6.50) more than makes up for any glitches in the veggie department. If you must dine in one of the trendier restaurants around town, I at least advise stopping by Rino’s after dinner for that bread pudding and a splash of Frangelico.
Perhaps there is simply nothing new or trendy about eating well'which is why I’ll put my money on Rino’s to be around for at least another 26 years.