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Monday, March 20, 2006 

The Vallatta

Sometimes the difference between a good restaurant and a great one isn't the food; it's the service. A steak is a steak, but it tastes better when served on a silver tray by a waiter in a tuxedo. With that in mind, I started to get worried after waiting 20 minutes for a table at The Vallata, an upscale Italian restaurant in Fairbanks. The Vallata has a reputation for fine dining in the Goldstream Valley, and we had a reservation, so why were we waiting? When my companion, Amanda, and I were seated, it became clear that the Saturday before Valentine's Day might not be the best time to nitpick about punctuality: Every other table was filled with dreamy-eyed couples.

The hostess suggested we wait at the bar, where the bartender promptly got us a bottle of wine. After we were seated and ordered our entrees, our waitress brought our soup, salad and bread. We dove into the breadbasket and were pleased with thick slices warm enough to melt the butter. "It's these little touches that make up for the plastic tablecloths," Amanda said.

My salad was a fairly run-of-the-mill assemblage of iceberg lettuce, cherry tomatoes, onions and croutons, but Amanda raved about the honey mustard dressing. A passing waiter checked with the kitchen and told us it was the only dressing at The Vallata that wasn't house made, but the chef refused to reveal the brand. Amanda chose the minestrone soup, which had a thick flavor with a medley of spices and large chunks of vegetables that floated in the bowl. The soup was a winner.

For a main course, I ordered Veal Saltimbocca alla Romana ($26.95). Our waitress tried to gently steer me toward the pasta as a side dish, and I wish I had listened instead of opting for the potato croquette. I couldn't resist her description of a mashed potato ball deep-fried and served with cheese sauce. Being a potato purist, I sneer at any potato that is whipped instead of mashed, and this was one whipped potato. The cheese sauce poured over the top of the croquette was a little bland despite the sprinkle of herbs over the top.

On top of a bed of pasta, the veal would have been a full meal with leftovers. Alone on the plate, there was just enough food for me. The meat was thinly cut and supple in my mouth. While the sauce had a lot of butter, it stayed clear of being greasy and instead had the delightful tang of Marsala with a hint of sage. The veal was served on a bed of tender sauteed spinach with several slices of prosciutto, which added a smoky flavor.

Amanda decreed that she must order pasta in an Italian restaurant, so we put the baked lasagna ($17.95) to the test. Her portion was large enough to provide us with leftovers after we both ate our fill. What initially looked like a bowl of sauce was actually a bowl of lasagna lightly covered. The chef used a liberal amount of ricotta cheese, giving the dish a pleasant sponginess, and the tomato sauce did not overwhelm the pasta.

The day after Valentine's Day, my boyfriend Tom and I ventured back to The Vallata, hoping for a quieter atmosphere. We opted to split an appetizer and a pizza. While The Vallata touts their pizza in their advertising, it doesn't actually appear on the menu. We had to ask our waitress for the list.

Once again, we got fresh, warm bread along with our antipasto platter ($16.95). I had never eaten antipasto before, and it was mostly a treat. This was my first encounter with an anchovy, and the salty flavor and mushiness left a bad taste in my mouth. I also found the Parmesan cheese slice a little odd. I'm used to seeing parmesan grated over a dish, not served in chunks. The plate also included salami and prosciutto, but overall it had a strong slant toward vegetables.

I decided on a 16-inch pizza with fresh tomatoes and jalapenos ($17.95). The pie was covered liberally with large slices of fresh tomato and dotted with jalapenos. At first bite, I found the pizza very spicy. Closer inspection revealed that the heat came from the jalapenos; the tomato sauce was savory but didn't pack a punch like the peppers did. I am as particular about my pizza crust as I am about my potatoes so I approached the edge of the pizza cautiously. Fortunately, this crust bridged the gap between thin-crunchy and thick-doughy. It was thin but not rigid, although this meant it flopped in the middle under the weight of the tomatoes. The end of the crust was light and bubbly, if a bit bland. Perhaps salt on the edges would have made the crust even more delicious.

Since we'd shared the two dishes, Tom and I felt perfectly justified in ordering dessert as well. I engaged in my usual tactic of letting him narrow down the offerings, then making the final decision myself. In this case, I selected the tiramisu cheesecake ($6.25). The piece that arrived at our table was, frankly, kind of small for the price. It's good for the chef that the decadent chocolate crust and delicate mascarpone and amaretto flavor made up for it. The bottom layer was plain cheesecake, and the top layer was a fluffy tiramisu cream.

Despite my initial fears on my first visit, the service at The Vallata ultimately proved excellent. Throughout both meals, our waitress checked on us frequently and a busser made sure that empty dishes were whisked away. Our water glasses remained full. When we asked, the waitresses were willing to offer advice and help us select dishes. In the end, both the service and food were good enough to ensure that we would make a return visit.

Review published in the Anchorage Press.