November 9, 2007
Anticipation well deserved
by Mike Taylor
Joe Accurso grew up in the restaurant business. His grandmother cooked at Gaetano’s, on the Northeast side in the days when the area housed many Italian family restaurants. His uncle produced homemade Italian sausage.
Around 1985, Joe and his sister bought Paul’s Main Street Deli, 5044 Main, located a few blocks south of The Plaza. The space has housed a restaurant since 1904, over a decade before the development of the Country Club Plaza.
Joe finished college and Kathy left the business a few years later. After that, Joe began turning the place into a restaurant reminiscent of the neighborhood family places he remembered from his childhood. The major expansion occurred in 2001, when they added a dining room in the space next door, now seating around 100, and built a full-sized kitchen. He got a liquor license, started serving dinner and changed the name to Accurso’s Italian Restaurant (although a faded sign hanging over the front door still announces “Main Street Deli”).
“I’ve been remodeling for 22 years,” Joe told me on the phone when I asked him about the impressive back bar.
The walnut structure with a canopy runs the length of the front room and holds a full complement of wines and liquors. Wood paneling, covered with family photos, surround the booths giving the room a homey, rustic look. The non-smoking main dining room, two steps up from the bar, has similar décor.
About all that remains on the menu from the deli days are a couple of the sandwiches, including a substantial Dagwood ($6.95) of roast beef, ham, Swiss cheese with dill pickles and barbecue sauce served in a toasted Italian roll instead of the traditional rye bread. Another notable sandwich is Joe’s Italian sausage ($5.95). It’s a standard version elevated with homemade sausage that Accurso makes weekly from his uncle’s recipe.
From the dozen appetizers offered, including Brushette Accurso, and five seafood selections, I tried the Calamari ($7.95), Fried Shrimp Lemonada ($12.95) and Scallops ($13.95). The crunchy calamari was served with grandma’s recipe red sauce, a tasty gravy-like concoction of tomato, garlic and oregano. The creamy Lemonada sauce, with healthy dashes of garlic and red pepper flakes, provided a pleasant counterpoint to the six plump shrimp in their crispy breading.
The scallops took the prize, though. Crusty brown from the grill, they swam in a puddle of garlic butter dusted with red pepper flakes. They disappeared so quickly from a blanket of Provel cheese; Brian, Karen and I soon had nothing left but the enticing sauce. When Brian summoned the server for bread to sop it up, we got warm slices already soaked with olive oil and garlic. In fact, garlic, oregano and the red pepper flakes showed up in most of the food I tasted at Accurso’s.
On another visit, I began with the Italian Egg Drop Soup ($4.95). They add garlic, oregano, red pepper flakes and penne pasta to the traditional Chinese version before dropping in the egg whites. It’s a fun variation, soothing with a spicy kick.
In addition to the pasta entrees, Accurso’s offers fish/clam dishes along with the scallops and shrimp, chicken and beef selections. I tried two entrees, Eggplant Parmesan ($11.95) and Joe’s Seafood Filet ($27.95). The breaded eggplant topped with melted cheese and covered in the red sauce qualifies as Italian comfort food.
My friend Butch told me about the curative powers of the eggplant. He said, “When Susan and I get down during the week, we head for Accurso’s. We’ll knock on our next-door neighbor’s door and just say, ‘eggplant.’ He’ll say, ‘Count me in,’ and we head down there. We think it’s the best in the city.”
The Seafood Filet takes “surf and turf” from an indulgence to decadence. A healthy chunk of beef tenderloin arrived in the middle of the plate surrounded by grilled shrimp and scallops in a garlicky cream sauce with a spicy bite. The intoxicating concoction could have led to a digestive nightmare if I’d finished it, but good sense prevailed.
That bit of sanity deserted me when I perused the dessert menu, also from traditional recipes. Cannoli ($3.50), sweetened ricotta cheese laced with almonds and chocolate chunks, came wrapped in a homemade shell and went down so lightly that there wasn’t much quilt. The only variation Accurso makes to the Tiramisu ($4.75) are the chocolate shavings instead of cocoa powder on top of the brandy-soaked ladyfingers stuffed with a crème filling. The dizzying flavor of the brandy dampens the guilt of the Tiramisu.
Joe told me, “My mom’s been making the cheesecake for all twenty-two years.”
The experience shows, Mary’s Cheesecake ($4.95) comes close to perfection with its thin graham cracker crust and dense, chastely sweetened filling.
Although the restaurant has a casual, family atmosphere, the wait staff and kitchen staff is so efficient the food we ordered arrived at the table right-off-the-stove hot — too hot for me to dive into immediately — no matter how busy the place was. I’m not talking about plates heated under the broiler to melt the cheese; I’m talking about the food on the plates. Service doesn’t get much better than that.
I sat at the bar on a recent Saturday night watching as customers walk in at the beginning of the dinner rush. It was a multigenerational mix, but they all seemed to have something in common. They all wore relaxed, self-satisfied expressions, more appropriate after dinner than beforehand.
I walked through The Plaza later and saw jammed restaurants, snarled traffic and crowded sidewalks. It occurred to me why all the diners at Accurso’s looked so self-satisfied before eating. They were ready to enjoy food as good as any found on The Plaza in a much more relaxed atmosphere.
Mike Taylor can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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