I'll admit: When I heard about Crazy Italians, I was un pò preoccupato (a little worried). A fast-casual restaurant from the country that invented Slow Food? And in the suburbs, no less, in a strip mall next to Party City? It calls to mind a passage from Dante's Inferno: "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here."
Against the odds, it's pretty tasty. In the first place, owners Giampaolo Ongaro and Daniele Zucca are Italian, from Bergamo and Sardinia, respectively. They were project managers at Internet companies, and they've never been to culinary school. But they learned the basics at grandma's elbow, and that culinary prowess is on display. Take the spaghetti alla carbonara ($9.99).
"It's an easy way to tell if a place is good," Ongaro confides. "If you go one second too long, it's scrambled eggs."
While Ongaro talks, Zucca pulls the noodles out of the boiling water and drops them into the frying pan, where the bacon has started to sizzle. He adds cheese, eggs, and a bit of pasta water. Zucca skates on and off the gas burner, bringing the carbonara to just the right consistency. When it has thickened to liquid gold, he sweeps it into a bowl and dusts it with parmesan and cracked pepper.
Zucca's carbonara doesn't disappoint. It's creamy and ethereal, with the heft of good bacon and the piquancy of top-shelf parmesan. Those of us with Italian grandmothers already know this food, but the rest of you owe it to yourselves to try it. Also recommended: the lasagna with meat sauce ($12.99) and the tiramisu ($4.99). I don't praise desserts lightly, but this is heaven.
The question remains: How do you make Italian food fast? For Ongaro and Zucca, the answer is simple: stick to pasta and appetizers. If you're looking for risotto al tartufo, you won't find it here. But there really is something to be said for quick and cheap. All sauces are made from scratch at the beginning of the night; all noodles are parboiled. So when you order a dish, it only takes a few minutes to land on the table in front of you.
It's fast, but they're not really cutting any corners. The ingredients are fresh, the preparations are on point, and the portions are generous. I'll pause while we all breathe a collective sigh of relief.
Some restaurants are born like Athena: full-formed from the forehead of Zeus. Others, like Maximo's on Broad, take their time to emerge. It opened five years ago as 3 Angels Diner. Last year it was bought by new owners, and last month it finally came into its own, with a new name and a new look. Try it, and you'll suspect it was worth the wait.
"We loved 3 Angels, but it wasn't our idea," co-owner Amy Zuniga says. "We just needed to do our own thing."
Visually, that means better lighting and a more toned-down décor. But the main difference is the food. Chef Julio Zuniga has always been ambitious, but now he's swinging for the fences, with a wine-driven menu stacked with tapas like Peruvian Ceviche, Portabella Confit, and Citrus Duck. (The new name comes from the Spanish word "máximo," which means "the highest, the greatest, the best.")
My favorite was the ravioli ($8). The pasta is made in-house and stuffed with spinach and goat cheese. It's drizzled with a roasted red pepper sauce that's good enough to eat with a spoon. The coup de grace is a curl of crispy prosciutto that floats above the confection, a feather in its cap. Also recommended: the Tuna Tartar ($9) and the Salpicon Tostadas ($8).
I recommend trying Maximo's for dinner. Zuniga went to culinary school in Mexico and got his chops aboard Holland America cruise ships, where he served as many as 350 people at a single dinner service. He knows what he's doing; now all he needs is an audience.