At its best, good Italian food is simple, with well-cooked pasta serving as a foundation upon which sauce, spice, and protein can work their magic. For the home cook, this isn't hard to achieve given the small portions used, but when pasta is scaled up to the restaurant level, those simple dishes too often become studies in gummy, overcooked noodles and sauces past their prime. While our recent meal at Graffiti's on Cantrell didn't avoid all the pitfalls that come with serving Italian on a large scale, we left our visit pleased in the understanding that they'd gotten closer to our ideal Italian meal than any place has in some time.
We started with some seasoned ciabatta (half order $3.35, full order $6.50), and while the garlic and herb topping was flavorful, the bread was a little more dry than we felt an oily bread like ciabatta should warrant. There's a fine line between good toasted bread and dry toast, and this was unfortunately the latter. As an optional item that cost money, it left much to be desired. Our spirits were immediately raised by the arrival of our second starter, the stuffed mushrooms ($6.45) — four mushroom caps piled high with Italian sausage, red sauce, and toasted mozzarella. These mushrooms were gooey without being slimy, and the balance of textures made for bite after compelling bite.
The first main dish that drew our eye was the Fettuccine with Seafood ($21.95), which was marked as a "Graffiti's specialty." The resulting bowl of pasta was excellent, with firm fettuccine topped by an ocean's worth of tender scallops, sweet shrimp, and flaky white fish. The scallops in particular were a nice surprise, since getting the bivalves cooked well in our land-locked locale is not the norm; these were perfect. The sauce was a thick, creamy affair that clung to the noodles and seafood nicely, but suffered from some slight separation that had us wondering how long the dish might have been hanging around in the window before our server got to it. Overall, though, this was a dish worth the high price tag, and one we certainly hope to try again.
Sticking with our pasta theme, we also ordered the Linguine with Escargot (half order $7.40, full order $15) and Spaghetti with Meatballs (half order $6.95, full order $12.95). In both cases, our pasta was firm and just past the point of al dente (which is where we prefer to eat it). The linguine was served with a creamy white wine sauce dotted with snails, and while the sauce was magnificent, the snails themselves were plagued by a slightly bitter aftertaste, something that points to their being cooked without a proper fasting period to clean them of all their waste. It's a real shame, because in terms of texture and preparation, these were among the best snails we've ever tried.
Our classic spaghetti with meatballs suffered from none of the problems we found with the other two pasta dishes. The sauce was a perfect red sauce, dark and rich with just the right amount of bracing herbs to give it some character. The meatballs themselves were heavenly, with a moist-yet-firm texture and spicy-sweet flavor that had us wishing for more than just the four we ordered. A good meatball shouldn't just be a chunk of ground meat; it should have character, and these little nuggets of caraway-scented sausage were exactly what we wanted to taste.
Our overall experience at Graffiti's was as mixed as our meal. On the one hand, the restaurant dedicates a single person to providing refills, something we wish more places would do, seeing as there's nothing worse than choking down a meal with an empty glass staring you in the face. But our main server seemed somewhat overwhelmed by his section, disappearing for a large part of our meal and skipping us on several rounds (something we observed him doing to other tables, too). The inefficient service perhaps led to some of the sauce separation, which when coupled with the escargot preparation issues made less-than-perfect meal. Still, with the good parts of the experience outweighing the bad, we wouldn't hesitate to head back over to Graffiti's when a pasta craving comes upon us.