I don't mind being proved wrong if friends or readers tell me they've found a culinary gem in a strip center, tucked between a dry cleaner and a tanning salon. It doesn't happen very often, but when it does, I feel like I've stumbled onto a great secret. That was precisely my reaction to Altizio's Italian Restaurant, which opened four months ago in the Highland Plaza Shopping Center (shoehorned into a space that has a popular Tanner's Bar & Grill on one side and a hair salon on the other) on the north side of 119th Street. The place is terrific but has yet to become the latest hoi polloi discovery, which is why my friend Bob begged me not to write about it. "Then everyone will know about it, and it will be crowded all the time," he said.
That would be the best-case scenario, I assured him -- the 54-seat dining room had only a handful of occupied tables during any of my three visits. Road construction on 119th Street at the Alternate 69 Highway ramps just east of Altizio's surely hasn't helped. The street repair has "severely hurt ... lunch business," says the restaurant's co-owner, Terry Mason.
Mason owns the restaurant with her husband, Frank Bushek (who named it for his late mother, Lillian Altizio Bushek). Neither had much restaurant experience when they decided they wanted to open a place. They originally conceived something simple, like a pizzeria, but plans changed when Mason's son, young cook Josh Peterson (a veteran of the Grand Street Café under that venue's former executive chef, Michael Peterson, no relation) started tinkering with the proposed menu. When another chef, New Yorker Mike Saluzzi -- who looks like a model and talks like one of the Sopranos -- stopped by the uncompleted pizzeria one day to chat with the Busheks, he was hired to work with Josh. Suddenly the concept for Altizio's was reborn: a sit-down bistro with cream-colored table linens, a decent wine list and a surprisingly elaborate dinner menu.
There are still plans to open a combination pizzeria-bakery-deli at another location in the shopping center by September, but right now all the focus is on getting customers through the door at Altizio's. The food is the primary lure. Peterson and Saluzzi share the executive chef title, and the dinner menu combines Josh's ideas (Osso Buco Alla Napoli), Mike's creations (Brooklyn Lasagna, stuffed with Italian sausage and "baby meatballs") and Frank's mother's recipes, including the rich marinara sauce and homemade buffalo mozzarella.
At a time when new corporate imports are dominating Johnson County's Italian restaurant landscape (Cinzetti's Italian Market and Bravo Cucina Italiano are the two most recent arrivals), Altizio's is a cultural throwback: a mom-and-pop operation where the kitchen crew bakes the yeasty bread and makes its own milky cheeses. That said, Altizio's is not a suburban version of a Brooklyn spaghetti joint, and the prices aren't especially cheap.
But I never blinked at the bill, because nearly everything I tasted was delicious. And the portions were outlandishly generous, even for the most extravagant of Mike Saluzzi's innovations, Fettuccine Cleopatra -- a veritable pyramid of noodles dressed up with a pale-pink sauce fragrant with cognac, then dappled with red caviar, heaped with grilled shrimp and puffy sea scallops, and decorated with dewy rose petals. It wasn't just a sensual overload; it was so overwhelming in size that I had to split the dish with my friend Barbara. She still took most of her portion home. Bob did, too -- as much as he loved his buttery Chicken Saluzzi (heaped with prosciutto and shrimp), he had gotten so greedy with the appetizers that he was stuffed before the main course arrived.
But baby, who can resist that calamari? Described in vivid terms on the menu as "dusted in aggressively seasoned flour," it only sounds violent. The squid was actually pretty mild-mannered under that airy, crunchy shell of flash-fried rice-flour batter, though the accompanying sauces -- zesty marinara and a lemony herb aioli -- pack some punch. Even better is the rustic Altizio's version of bruschetta, a do-it-yourself appetizer served with thick, crusty slices of freshly baked bread that can be adorned with roasted garlic, fresh basil, mozzarella, a fluffy ball of goat cheese, and chopped tomatoes marinated in tart balsamic vinaigrette.
A few nights later, I got daring and brought along three of my snobbiest food friends to the restaurant: Dennis, Marilyn and Bob. None of them had ever heard of Highland Plaza, and Bob kept thinking I was calling the place "I'll Tease You," which actually would be a clever name for a hair salon. Or a strip club.
But Altizio's isn't that hard to pronounce, and it's very easy to like, no teasing. I'd call the service style semiformal, distant but hardly stiff. (In fact, I suspect that red-haired waiter Adam was flirting with Marilyn.) The music was all Sinatra; if you're going to attack a daunting, 1-pound slab of that gorgeous Brooklyn Lasagna, layered with pignola nuts, homemade mozzarella and creamy ricotta, you might as well be singing along to "My Way."
When Marilyn wasn't batting her eyelashes at the waiter, she was raving about her breasts. Of Chicken Marsala, that is, glazed with a pale, golden sauce that she said tasted "like sweet Italian wine." Dennis ordered the veal version and sounded like a fashion photographer, insisting that his baby calf slices be "thin, thin, thin!" They were indeed, and lovingly draped with strips of salty prosciutto and sliced mushrooms. His veal, her bird and Bob's succulent fillet were all served with a little round dish of "potato pie," a creation of spuds and heavy cream under a blanket of melted mozzarella. I took a spoonful and wished that my dinner, a brawny hunk of Osso Buco Alla Napoli -- meaty veal shank slowly simmered with vegetables until it falls off the bone -- had been served over a mound of gooey, Southern-sounding potato pie instead of plebeian penne pasta.
Frank Bushek says that once the planned pizzeria-bakery-deli opens, Altizio's will offer homemade desserts, but for now the servers show off a pastry tray with five or six pretty confections made by a local purveyor, including a potently boozy tiramisu and a tiny circle of chocolate mousse cake that looked just like a Wayne Thiebaud canvas. Maybe that's why I had a visceral reaction to it, too. I ate most of the delicacy myself, even though it was Dennis' birthday. A sinful act, but because I'm already revealing that Altizio's is the new best-kept restaurant secret in south Johnson County, I might as well confess everything. It's good for the soul.