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Z Right Stuff

Dinner at Mr. Z’s and a romantic movie earn two thumbs up.

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Since the release of the CD Fitzcaraldo in 1995, the Dublin band The Frames has been one of my favorites. So when I read Scott Renshaw’s glowing review of the film Once, which stars The Frames’ Glen Hansard and his music, I knew it was one I oughtn’t miss. The über-romantic tune “Falling Slowly” had been in serious rotation around our house for some time, and if the movie did even an th of justice to that exquisite song, I knew that it would be the perfect film to wrap a date around. It was.

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As anyone with kids already knows, date nights come far too infrequently. So the opportunity to take in a film like Once'as opposed to say, Transformers'shouldn’t be taken lightly. As it happens, one of my favorite Salt Lake City bistros, Mr. Z’s Cucina Italiana, is directly next door to the Broadway Centre Cinemas where Once was playing. Perfect.

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Before the show, we dropped in to visit the friendly Kassy, a terrific bartender at Panache Wine Bar. She recommended Dr. Loosen “Dr. L.” Riesling 2006 from the Mosel, which turned out to be, as advertised, “Lightly sweet & lively,” just like Once. It was a perfect pre-cinema aperitif.

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Now if you happened to be at the Broadway Centre theater that night, it was my lovely wife’s cell phone that went off at one of the movie’s quietest interludes: “R-E-S-P-E-C-T! Find out what it means to me!” Why couldn’t that have happened at Ratatouille or Fantastic Four? Thankfully, independent moviegoers tend to be a forgiving group, and we were allowed to stay for the remainder of the film, which, as Renshaw had suggested in his review, was absolutely wonderful. So with romance thick in the air, it was time to dine al fresco.

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It had been way too long since I’d last eaten at Mr. Z’s Cucina Italiana, and I’d forgotten how the staff there'including “Mr. Z,” John Zaccheo himself'go out of their way to make customers feel like family. The affable manager at Mr. Z’s suggested a sidewalk seat, adding, “It’s good for business to have pretty girls out front!”'a remark that came off flattering and funny in the laidback Mr. Z’s atmosphere but might have flopped with an uncomfortable thud elsewhere. Now, I won’t equate dining al fresco at Mr. Z’s to Rome’s Camponeschi restaurant with its front-row view of the Piazza Farnese, but then the views from Mr. Z’s sidewalk patio aren’t obstructed by noisy tourists and souvenir-hawkers, either.

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Saf, which is short for Safwen, was our Tunisian-born server at Mr. Z’s, fluent in Italian, French and Arabic, in addition to English. He’s as top-notch a server as you’re likely to find in a Utah restaurant. After recounting a couple of dinner specials, he delivered bread with a plate of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, along with a wine bucket for our bottle of Argiolas Costamo Vermento'which, like everything on Mr. Z’s menu, is very reasonably priced. Shortly thereafter, Saf reappeared with our appetizers: A Caprese salad of sliced tomatoes and fresh mozzarella with basil on a bed of crispy spring greens ($6.45); and cozze al vapore ($8.65), which is a simple but delicious dish of steamed mussels with garlic, white wine, tomatoes chunks, chili flakes and parsley. I normally order the clam version of this dish at Mr. Z’s, which incorporates fresh basil. But it’s a toss-up, really. Either dish makes for a splendid starter, as does the more filling roasted Genoa polenta with a choice of Alfredo, Bolognese or pomodoro sauce ($6.65).

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Although this was, as previously stated, a romantic date night, Mr. Z’s Cucina Italiana is a great place to take the kids. There are a ton of pasta dishes to entice old and young alike, and the restaurant offers half-portions for the little ones. Another nice touch: You can choose from a list of a dozen pasta varieties to customize your pasta dish. So if you’d prefer gemelli with your clam sauce rather than linguine, go for it! Mr. Z’s pollo alla Puglia ($8.25) is normally made with farfalle pasta, but we opted for penne; that’s having it our way. Whatever the pasta you choose, this is an unforgettable dish: Perfectly cooked al dente pasta with tender chunks of chicken breast in a light sauce made of chicken broth, onion, garlic, celery, olives, capers, tomatoes and basil. It’s an absolutely delightful summertime choice.

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For entrees, you can never go wrong with the veal scaloppini piccata ($14.65) at Mr. Z’s or his rockin’ risotto cakes ($8.85) with spinach, porcinis, peas, pignolis, eggplant and raisins in a zippy “Diablo” pomodoro sauce. But on this romantic evening, I found the gnocchi with beef tips ($10.25) especially seductive. The gnocchi were everything I’d hoped for. Some like their potato gnocchi light and airy; I prefer mine a bit dense and chewy, which is exactly how Mr. Z’s makes home-style gnocchi. Those nummy gnocchi are served bathed in a light (but not so light I wouldn’t want to call it decadent) and velvety bordelaise sauce with just a hint of nutty/sweet brandy and topped with tender, braised beef tips. Like the pollo all Puglia, this was not a terrifically complex or complicated dish, but tasted like the homemade meals I’ve had in Italy, complete with that friendly familiar service. Go see Once, but treat yourself and those you love to Mr. Z’s Cucina Italiana more than once.

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MR. Z’s CUCINA ITALIANA
n111 E. Broadway
nLunch & dinner
nMonday-Saturday
nDinner only on Sundays
n994-2002

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