We were recently contacted by Steve Darnell who, having purchased Palmer Lake's La Zingara from Franco Pisani and Ted Sexton of Paravicini's Bistro, encouraged us to review his food.

Though Darnell's still serving his predecessor's menu (which we'd never tried) after a year on his own, we were enticed by his claim that he'd tinkered with house seasonings and sauces. And, he said, he'd added Creole specials.

A New Orleans transplant, Darnell said customers had requested the Creole. But on both of my visits, no such items were offered. When I later asked why by phone, he explained that he only offers those specials on Fridays.

Bummer for us, especially since so much of what we did try came up flat in the flavor department.

I started with the Veal Servino ($15.95 with choice of soup or Caesar salad) and found the Caesar over-dressed. A gentleman at a nearby table on my second visit apparently agreed: I overheard him warning his co-diners to get the dressing on the side. The veal and mushrooms, La Zingara's take on Marsala, arrived smothered in a gravy-like brown sauce and topped with dollops of Boursin cheese. Some of the small cutlets were tender, but others were so sinewy, cutting through them was like trying to cut through a rubber band. The dish proved bland, and the Boursin didn't add anything.

We fared much better with the baked ravioli ($11.95): four ravioli in a rich Bolognese sauce covered with melted cheese and a creamy addition of fresh, cooling ricotta on top. Also decent was the pasta e fagioli ($3.25 cup/$4.50 bowl), a hearty Tuscan bean soup with seashell pasta and Parmesan. And I enjoyed a creamy and delicious tiramisu ($5.50) drenched in liqueur.

But sadly, everything else I tried was a mixed bag or just a disappointment. The Artichokes Fritti ($8.25), with hearts dipped in a light batter and fried until golden and crisp, was tasty, but the promise of "garlic" dipping sauce had me anticipating aioli — not a watery mix of Alfredo and pesto with bits of tomato.

The Tilapia Florentine ($13.95) came to the table in an unappetizing halo of uncooked, undressed and unseasoned wilted spinach. The pan-fried fish itself arrived under a lemon caper sauce that was way too sour, and that made the light coating mushy.

The misfires are mirrored in the décor. When this space was The Villa years ago, the dining room was intimate, with red booths and mauve walls, and the fireplace gave off a romantic vibe. It's not much different today — except for the thick layer of dust that embellishes faux vines covering the ceiling. Even with Steve's wife, Mary Beth, leading a wait staff that's professional, friendly and funny, you don't get a sense that there's new blood energizing this place.

The new owner may claim that this is "a much different restaurant than the old La Zingara," but it doesn't make a strong first impression on its own. Darnell concedes that he worries about alienating customers with drastic menu changes, but the time to distinguish himself is overdue. Until he does, he's basically serving leftovers out of someone else's kitchen.


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