In March, Dat's Italian owner JoAnn Trujillo told us that she didn't consider neighboring Paravicini's Italian Bistro as competition. "He's fine dining," she said. "I'm going to be more get-it-and-go." Along with that sentiment, Trujillo's cheap prices and large portions are clearly aimed right at the masses.
Unfortunately, so is some of the food itself.
Sporting a black awning tattooed with the restaurant's colorful logo, Dat's Italian is instantly recognizable on Colorado Avenue. When you walk through the double doors, a dessert case gives way to roughly 15 tables covered with green cloths and glass. The wood-paneled dining room teems with family pictures and murals of wineries. Decoration being easy to over-do, Dat's strikes an easy balance between welcoming and almost-kitschy.
After looking over a fairly small menu based on fourth-generation family recipes, we started dinner with a plate of fresh mozzarella, tomato and basil ($7.75) drizzled with olive oil and balsamic, and made-to-order zucchini patties ($7.25). The creamy mozzarella was great, covered in super-floral, ribboned basil, and the zucchini patties — essentially two fluffy pancakes the size of a small plate, also with accompanying oil and balsamic — were light and equally tasty.
Next came the lasagna ($8.75), that night's special, and spaghetti with meatballs ($7.75), both covered in an amazing, homemade, lightly sweet and chunky red sauce. Unfortunately, the lasagna itself was overcooked, demanding a knife at one point to saw through the top. And the spaghetti, cooked a little past an ideal al dente texture, hardly benefitted from the staid meatballs. Accompanying garlic bread with each was on the soggy side.
Lunch kept to the same theme of grand-and-bland. An Italian sausage sandwich ($7.50) covered in sweet red and green peppers, onions and provolone, was a deliciously spicy treat. However, the Italian Crusha' ($7.75) of salami, pepperoni, ham and Provolone, topped with red onions, black olives, green peppers, tomatoes and Italian dressing seemed great on paper, but failed to elevate beyond your average deli sandwich.
Sides proved a little disappointing as well: A Caesar salad ($2.75 small, $4.50 large) came covered with green peppers, olives and tomatoes, with a squirt of Caesar dressing and some late-delivered anchovies being the only nods to its namesake. A standard cucumber and tomato salad ($2.75) also failed to impress, and the cannellini bean salad that accompanies entrées just tasted like cold beans swimming in Italian dressing.
Desserts fared better with a wonderfully crunchy, mildly sweet, ricotta-filled cannoli ($3.50) and lovely, airy, licorice-tinged anisette cookies ($2), both more exciting than a large slice of basic chocolate cake ($4).
Beyond generous portions for low prices, Dat's' biggest selling point is its passion: Trujillo obviously values her customers, as she personally checked in on us on both visits. She made sure we tried dessert, had all questions answered, and, on one visit, gifted us with cookies on the way out.
In a tough economy, it's laudable that Dat's Italian has aimed for affordable eats, but until the family tightens some cooking points, nearby competition aside, it will likely make its mark for dat only.