128 E. Wilson St., 255-8376
11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5-10 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 5-11 p.m. Sat. Closed Sun. EntrÃes $9-$15. Credit cards and checks, street and ramp parking, wheelchair accessible.
Osteria Papavero doesn't have airs, if you don't count the cold winter blasts that shoot through the room every time someone opens the front door to the foyer-less restaurant. But there is an abiding warmth to the place that feels determinedly down home and unaffected, as if co-owners Jeff Orr and Brian Haltinner ' in concocting an antidote to their very glossy neighboring Cocoliquot ' tried to distill the essence of every bistro, taquerÃa, trattoria and Main Street diner in the world.
That would explain, in addition to that missing foyer (even an insulating curtain would help), the easygoing, happy feel of the saffron yellow walls and red-painted farmhouse chairs. It would explain the friendly bar parked in the back of the room, lined with black leather chairs, and the chalkboard filled with daily specials. It would explain the cheerfully casual, efficient service and the list of low-priced Italian wines.
And it would explain chef and third co-owner Francesco Mangano's no-fuss menu, which attempts a rustic, Mama's-kitchen sort of largely Italian-inflected food. There's a problem, though. To do justice to that kind of tradition can take as much work and skill as any haute meal, and the Osteria's low-key style doesn't always find that crucial energy or passion.
Thankfully, the restaurant's low prices (the most expensive entrÃe is $15, and a lot of dishes hover around the $10 mark) mean that no one will feel seriously cheated by their Papavero dinner, though a lot of the dishes never achieve their latent potential. Take the sad basket of very dry, thin-sliced bread, and the appetizer plate of crostini, featuring puny squares of toasted bread, as crunchy as melba toast, that barely have room for their chicken liver and green olive tapenade toppings.
The house smoked beef is tender but needs more taste ' maybe more of the truffle oil to compensate for the bland meat. And while the garganelli pasta is cooked al dente and comes tossed with rich nuggets of sausage, it too lacks drama; the watery, Lean Cuisine-like sauce deserves a richer, more complex body.
Other disappointments? The very chewy, slow-roasted duck leg, which is all skin and fat and bone, and a flaccid, mealy sautÃed lemon sole that lacks the firm texture and sweet taste of fresh fish. Worst of the bunch: a lamb chop special that proved impenetrable. No one among the four at my table could saw off a tender slice from the very gristly, tough, defiant chop.
Is all lost? No. Some of Papavero's dishes are fine, and when they work, the place suddenly looks as sunny and happy as it wants to be. I liked a pappardelle served with strips of pheasant. While the bird could have been a touch more tender, it added a nice rustic flavor to the al dente pasta. Real cause for celebration is a knock-out soup of beans, Tuscan kale and bread that rates as a perfect, hearty, soothing winter dish, all at the bargain price of $6.
Also satisfying: a big plate of braised boar and creamy polenta that is simple and Mama-worthy. So is the warm plum cake topped with whipped cream and a very caffeinated tiramisu. So order wisely, and this can turn into a real winter standby. Just keep your coat on if it's a busy night.