There are plenty of reasons to go to Palmer Lake: to run the annual Fourth of July four-mile race that raises some money for the local elementary school; to hear resident singer-songwriter Chuck Pyle play at the Tri-Lakes Art Center; to remind ourselves of what smalltown life is like. For many years and for many people, eating at the Villa was all the reason they needed to head to Palmer Lake. I wanted to see what I was missing.
In a stuccoed building dating back to 1900 (built by a Swede with his own idiosyncratic notions of what Tuscan architecture should look like), we were seated by a friendly hostess at a table near the gas fireplace. This part of the restaurant was added in 1991 and is decorated to simulate a grape arbor in a Tuscan villa: textured walls, grapevines, faux marble columns. That's a difficult look to attain when the grapevines are plastic and the recessed ceiling lights a little too bright, but the attempt is laudatory.
Our waitress was as cordial as the hostess, a nice contrast to the spare, unfriendly wine list. There were very few wines by the glass -- only two Merlots and no Pinot Grigio, the current staple at Italian restaurants. The selection by the bottle was modest -- my Chianti-loving dining pals recognized the only Chianti on the list as a thin and watery one they had mistakenly purchased once before. We were put-off a bit, but still had high hopes for the menu.
We started with the Villa Sampler Platter, a $12.95 taster of all four cold and three hot appetizers. One was terrific, some were good, one was inedible. The eggplant and goat cheese roulade, allegedly flavored with red peppers, fresh basil and tomatoes, was so overly seasoned all we could taste was salt. The fresh mozzarella came with paper-thin prosciutto, a subtle but pleasant item. The bruschetta, which according to the menu description should have only had tomatoes, garlic, basil and oil, tasted as if it had been carrying on with the anchovies back in the kitchen. This was especially troubling, because our Caesar salad that came in the next course had nary a suggestion of anchovy.
The hot appetizers were better. The fried mozzarella was as crispy and gooey as this American notion of Italian food ever gets (what Italian would ever bread, and fry a decent cheese?), and the calamari were average -- neither as light nor as rubbery as calamari can be. The pancetta-wrapped shrimp was the star, grilled and plopped, not on a red-pepper puree as advertised on the menu, but on a small mound of red-pepper-infused mashed potatoes. It was a nice contrast of flavors and textures.
The soup special was a creamy three-onion soup marred by the heavy hand on the salt shaker that was beginning to worry us. The house salad was lovely -- fresh greens, Kalamata olive, a mild cheese and a light raspberry vinaigrette. The Caesar was plentiful, had lots of cheese and, though enlivened by the sprinkle of freshly ground pepper proffered by our waitress, was curiously bland, as if the garlic and anchovies had been left out of the dressing. Those pesky anchovies: messing with the bruschetta instead of the Romaine.
Entrees at the Villa include either the house or the Caesar salad. These salads can also be ordered a la carte for $4.95. The menu offers a third salad for $5.95, a traditional mozzarella and tomato salad.
Two breads, one crusty, one soft, arrived with dipping oil and herbs: Why are some restaurants the last to learn that this only works with fresh herbs? A shake of the Schilling's doesn't cut it.
On to the entrees: There are twice as many pasta choices as there are in any other sub-category (by species: chicken, veal, beef and fish). That's the tip-off. Stick to the pasta; after all, the pasta is homemade and, for the last five years, has been available for retail purchase, courtesy of the Villa Pasta Company.
None of the pasta entrees, ranging in price from $9.95 to $14.95, stray far from the tried-and-true: spaghetti and meatballs, ravioli, lasagna, fettuccini Alfredo. Though we didn't try it, the Farfalle Sinatra sounded yummy: spinach, prosciutto and bowtie pasta in a tomato cream sauce.
We did try the tortellini carbonara, and it was terrific, as rich as it ought to be, and in a serving that would satisfy a small family. Peasant dishes are done well at the Villa; anything grander fails in the execution. The entree special, for example, shrimp stuffed with lobster and dribbled with a delicate hollandaise sauce, was served with a dry and crusty risotto, one that had been spending too much time on the steam table. The Chicken Valeria sounded more interesting than either the chicken Parmigiana or chicken Marsala, but also fell short of its promise. While there were strips of redolent sun-dried tomatoes, and I saw a bit of an artichoke or two, the mushrooms tasted like they started the day in a jar, and the Chianti sauce was way, way too salty. On the plus side of the plate, however, were more of the red-pepper mashed potatoes we had seen on the appetizer platter.
I would hesitate to recommend either of the beef choices -- the grilled tenderloin or the tenderloin Diane -- as they are both served with a variation of the Chianti sauce. Better to try the shrimp scampi or the Shrimp a la Romano, layered with prosciutto and mozzarella in a lemon and white-wine sauce, and hope for the best.
Such disappointments would be easier to forgive if the prices for the non-pasta entrees weren't in the $14.95 to $22.95 range.