I recently attended a networking luncheon on the banquet side of Petterino's, Lettuce Entertain You's mostly-by-reservation Theater District spot. I'm not saying that my expectations meal-wise were low, but people don't usually attend these things for the food. But after a surprisingly solid meal, I couldn't help but wonder what the offerings were like on the customer-off-the-street side of the operation.
Within five minutes of being seated, "Ain't That a Kick in the Head" came over the loudspeaker, as though on cue. Makes sense. Though our server described the restaurant as a "40s and 50s Style Supper Club," she must have meant by way of Las Vegas, not Wisconsin. Dark wood trim and ruby red booths line the cream walled dining room, and the at-capacity crowd contributes handily to the din of the tuxedoed waitstaff clinking and clanking plates throughout the space and its adjoining bar.
I had my fingers crossed that the bread basket (on the house) from my banquet lunch would make an appearance, and I wasn't disappointed. The crunchy herbed breadsticks are standard, but the sweet and crumbly cornbread and salted dinner rolls are outstanding.
The rich, buttery Clam Chowder ($3.95 for a cup, or included with most entrees) is one of the best I've ever had and is easiest to describe in negatives: it's not gloppy, the vegetables are not overcooked, the generous hunks of clam are not over-processed or rubbery, and the flavor is not flat. I can't tell if this is a Fridays-only special, but starting with a cup of this will definitely wash away any meal missteps to follow.
If you need your salad in bit-sized bites, the Irv Kupcinet Chopped Salad ($11.95) is a marked improvement over Rosebud's version down the street—and at half the price. The veggies here are fresher, with nothing from a can save some black olives. Still, there's room for improvement: more bleu cheese would break up the iceberg monotony, a little more dressing would better bind the mess together, and a little more salt all around would waken up the individual flavors.
The promotional photo from the restaurant website promised a Grilled Chicken Club ($12.95) as high as the sky and plated with a stacking finesse unseen since the 80s. The sandwich that arrived lacked photographic showmanship, but was a respectable rendition nonetheless. Ham is added to the typical poultry, bacon, lettuce, and tomato formula and provides a needed saltiness to the sandwich. A heavier hand with the mayo would've helped, too.
The Fries (included with sandwiches) are Burger King level, from frozen out of the bag and begging for ketchup to add something, anything, to their one note crunch.
Petterino's heart pumps marinara, so leaving out a pasta dish would be missing the point here. The Housemade Potato Gnocchi with Tomato Vodka Sauce ($13.95) is a house special, and the starchy dumplings are nice and soft—maybe too much so. But that's nit-picky. The real puzzler is the sauce, which is uncharacteristically chunky with hunks of unprocessed tomato and barely sweated garlic. The appeal of vodka sauce is its blended, homogenous flavor; this version tastes of garlic and heat, and little else.
We ended our meal simply, with a pink peppermint Mini Ice Cream Sundae ($2.95). The scoops were melty and the homemade hot fudge sauce was less than pourable, but the flavors were there, so good enough, right? I think that's Petterino's and LEYE in general: familiar enough to scratch the itch, but a step or two away from being oft repeatable. Ain't that a hole in the boat?