Like the Coneheads, when my family goes out to eat the main requirement for satisfaction is mass quantities.
Unfortunately, that often translates to bland, overcooked food with no character, just bulk.
I'm happy to report a solution has been found that satisfies the picky tastebuds among us while soothing the growling, impatient bellies -- North End Spaghetti Factory.
An oasis of red, white and green amidst the gray landscape of this stretch of far North Nevada Avenue, North End Spaghetti Factory has the demeanor of a place that has been there for years though, in fact, it's only been there a short four months. The carpet is diner dingy, the windowsills are lined with empty Chianti and wine bottles, and the friendly horseshoe-shaped bar that dominates the entryway is the perfect place to watch a Broncos game on a late Saturday afternoon.
Friendly, capable service underlines the utilitarian nature of the place -- no frills here, just good food and plenty of it.
On the three occasions I have eaten there, I have noticed each time large tables, presumably families, who linger comfortably over their meals, sharing from the center of the table, stopping to talk and digest, then digging back in. The pace is relaxed; the atmosphere is laid-back and unpretentious -- no worries about which fork to use or whether to sniff your wine before knocking it back.
But the food ... ahhhhh, the food ...
We'll begin with appetizers. The calamari ($6.25), marinated in milk for tenderness then breaded and fried, is simply the best in town with just the right amount of herbs and pepper in the breading, just the right amount of chewiness. The ample plate comes with a wonderful spicy marinara sauce for dipping. Use it sparingly -- it's quite spicy and is a perfect accompaniment to the mild calamari. Also on the regular appetizer menu is a grilled portabella with red pepper coulis ($5.95), flavorful and well-prepared.
Salads range from functional but good to sublime and ridiculously large. A simple house salad ($2.95) is a pile of crisp lettuce (not iceberg) accented by shredded carrots, a sprinkling of pimentos and cucumber slices, topped with delicious, homemade croutons. The house dressing is a sweet honey mustard, but my favorite was the creamy balsamic -- a nice balance of pungent and sweet. The Caesar salad was also prepared to my liking, exceptionally garlicky and coated with freshly grated Parmesan, though it was a little too strongly flavored to suit my kids. An Italian chef's salad ($6.95), served at a table next to ours, was gargantuan and loaded with all kinds of protein and veggies -- salami, pancetta, egg, artichoke hearts, olives. It looked fabulous.
Mmmmm ... now to consuming mass quantities.
The pasta dishes are huge, the pasta cooked perfectly and the sauces are worthy of the most mouth-watering scenes from The Godfather or Moonstruck -- slow-cooked with plenty of good ingredients and emphasis on heft.
We tried basic spaghetti with marinara sauce ($5.95), fettucine with alfredo sauce ($6.95), stuffed shells with ricotta, and seafood fettucine in rosa sauce (a pinkish combination of marinara and alfredo).
As with the calamari, the marinara is the best I've had in town -- substantial with large chunks of sweet tomato, flecked with fresh parsley and basil and cooked to flavorful perfection. For a dollar or two extra, you can add grilled chicken, Italian sausage or meatballs to any of the pastas and sauces, as my son did with the fettucine alfredo. The alfredo is extremely rich and doesn't really need meat, but the chicken proved to be a nice addition.
The stuffed shells were a nightly special (posted on the dry erase board up front, next to the bar) and were an excellent example of what can be done with pasta baked in a saucy casserole.
The seafood fettucine, a regular menu item, came piled with very large, tender scallops and pink shrimp. The flavor combination of sauce and seafood was mild, garlicky and exceptionally pleasing. Half of each of these dishes went home with us, providing lunch over the weekend for slightly less hearty appetites.
On a return visit, I tried the linguine with white clam sauce. North End Spaghetti Factory's rendition of this simple, classic dish was made with fresh ingredients and a fine attention to the balance of flavors. The sauce was finished with white wine and was chock full of chopped garlic, fresh parsley and tender clams -- all served steaming on an enormous platter, ringed with steamed clams in their shells. Again, half of this dish went home for lunch the next day.
All meals are preceded by a loaf of good bread and a dish of olive oil with dried herbs and black pepper. Clones of the Coneheads that we are, our first loaf was completely gone before drinks were ordered.
North End Spaghetti Factory has a simple but functional and well-chosen wine list that's divided about half and half between Italian and California wines, with a special each night. The soup changes daily except for the Italian vegetable which is a staple ($1.95/ cup; $3.25/ bowl). Dessert is either tiramisu, cheesecake or spumoni, and honestly, I've never had room to try any of them.
I love the food at North End Spaghetti Factory, but I love the place even more for its good-natured easiness and simplicity. Mass quantities mix with good, basic cooking and pleasant service here, and the result is filling, delicious and friendly.