Tito’s Italian Grill and Wine Shop

Past reviews of Tito Macaroni’s in downtown Coeur d’Alene are reminiscent of a bad report card that characterized this Italian restaurant as an “over-sauced and under-cooked” tourist trap. But while amateur reviewers on such sites as Urbanspoon and Yelp! may have been correct several years ago, recent renovations and new leadership hope to make these one-star reviews a thing of the past.

Gone are the butcher-paper tablecloths doubling as coloring books, replaced with red table coverings and candles. Gone are the self-serve bottles of wine; in their place, a well-stocked wine shop, complimentary tastings, and special wine dinners. Gone too, is the Macaroni moniker, and in its place a more up-scale handle – welcome to the new Tito’s Italian Grill and Wine Shop.

Responsible for much of Tito’s new identity is Executive Chef Jim Barrett, who brings a lifetime of experience and fresh vitality to this Sherman Avenue storefront. With extensive industry expertise including stints as the Executive Chef at Beverly’s and Black Rock, Barrett took the failing restaurant under his wing in March 2011 with directions to “treat it like his own.” The result: an over-hauled menu steeped with Mediterranean flavors and a surge in business unprecedented in recent years.

The signs of Barrett’s influence are obvious. Take the Tomato Basil Bruschetta ($7.95) – six toasted bread rounds heaped with a medley of diced tomatoes, fresh basil, mozzarella, whole garlic cloves, kalamata olives, and crumbled feta indicate a job carefully done on this staple appetizer. A tasteful presentation of drizzled balsamic on obviously new plates lends confidence on the quality of the courses to come.

Clearly in the case of Tito’s smaller plates, such confidence is not misplaced. The range of the menu – from entrée sandwiches to veal and seafood – guarantee something for everyone, and salads such as the Caprese (side $4, entrée $9.25) are executed with care and contain enough flavor for an entire meal.

It is in some of the larger plates that signs of the former Tito’s fare still occasionally surface. During one visit, the well-cooked pasta and made-from-scratch sauce of the Smoked Chicken and Portabella Penne ($17.50) were overshadowed by a disproportionate amount of spinach and an inadequate amount of chicken. While the servings were generous, the presentation during two different visits showed some lack of attention.

Thankfully the upscale renovation of the restaurant retained Tito’s brick pizza oven, visible from the majority of seats inside. Barrett reworked the crust recipe, which now yields a perfect balance of crunch and softness. Children are encouraged to don chef’s hats and craft their own pizzas.

If you are feeling adventurous, try the Loaded Idaho Potato Pizza ($12.95), topped with sliced potatoes, green onions, bacon, and the requisite dollops of sour cream. All pizzas are also available gluten free (add $2).

Any respectable sweet-tooth will be more than satisfied by a range of Italian dessert offerings; Tito’s Tiramisu ($6) boasts dense layers of pastry and chocolate-chip studded mascarpone encased on three sides in chocolate. Portions are generous enough to split or share with the entire table.

While Tito’s renewed popularity is evident in busy summer weekends, this also revealed gaps in service.  One visit suffered a complete absence of the complimentary and highly-touted garlic bread.  The large dining room and full bar mean you’ll hardly ever have to wait for seating, but an under-sized kitchen – shared with the nightclub Splash across the hall – occasionally results in tardy or ill-timed meals.

Large groups are easily accommodated with advance notice, and if take-out is more your style, the entire menu and wine shop are available to-go. Outdoor tables along the Sherman sidewalk allow diners to take advantage of cool summer evenings and people-watch at leisure.

Particularly impressive is Tito’s commitment to remaining family-friendly while balancing the upscale addition of a wine shop adjacent to the bar.  Over 100 wines, predominately sourced from Washington State and Italy, are on hand on any given day; competitive retail prices and a mere $6 corkage fee insure you won’t break the bank. Tito’s offers complimentary tastings on Friday evenings (5-8pm) and the occasional wine dinner – a six-course feast specially crafted to showcase seasonal wines and able to accommodate 20-30 diners. The next event is planned for November; reservations are available on the Coeur d’Alene Resort website.

The fall will also bring Tito’s new seasonal menu – think hearty risottos, stews, and unique Feta Cheese Phyllo Cigars. The absence of summer crowds will allow for more attentive service and an intimate atmosphere. Already, Tito’s has regained its status a local favorite – the site of family pizza night, beer with a buddy, and Tuesday night Bingo. Tito’s again attracts regulars hungry for both the familiar and the flavorful, regulars whose very presence is a stamp of approval and a resounding A+.

Published in November 2012 Spokane Coeur d’Alene Living as “Making the Grade”

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