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Defensive dining: Italian-style

The Seafood Fra Diavolo is served over linguine

The Seafood Fra Diavolo is served over linguine at the Piccolo in Huntington at 215 Wall Street. (April 17, 2011) Credit: Heather Walsh

A friend went out to dinner last night and had a very disappointing Italian meal. “What did you order,” I asked. “A special,” she said. “It was called ‘misto.’” The misto (“mixed” in Italian) consisted of chicken breast, sausage and steak served on a bed of broccoli rabe. My friend found the chicken dry, the steak funny tasting and the sausage, seemingly, previously cooked. (The broccoli rabe was quite good.)

I tried to be sympathetic, but deep down I was sort of blaming my friend. She had broken one of my rules of defensive dining.

In an Italian restaurant:

Never order a dish with more than one meat. There are exceptions to this rule — chicken scarpariello (chicken and sausage) comes to mind, or veal saltimbocca (veal with prosciutto) — but anything that sounds like a meat medley should be avoided. I would be willing to bet that the author of last night’s “misto” was trying to use up leftovers. In fact, I usually avoid those “seafood abbondanza” dishes wherein the entire phyla of mollusks and crustaceans are dumped onto pasta. You’re always better off with spaghetti with either clams or mussels or shrimp.

Never order pasta with chicken in it. I can’t think of a single actual Italian pasta dish that calls for chicken. Most chicken-and-pasta dishes originate this way: the chef says to himself, “My customers like pasta and they like chicken breast. Why don’t I cut up the latter and put it on top of the former?” This is the same chef who will toss in some pesto for good measure and drizzle the whole thing with balsamic reduction.

Order spaghetti not linguine. You hardly ever see linguine in Italy, and for good reason. Because it’s thicker than spaghetti, and is oval rather than round in cross-section, it is harder to cook correctly — it is usually overcooked. I submit that any dish made with linguine would be improved by using spaghetti instead.

Readers, have you got any defensive-dining tips?

Mixed seafood over linguine; not a good bet.

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