Ricco’s: Almost ecstasy in a Johnson County strip mall

So I was sitting in a coffeehouse last week, trying to read a magazine, when I happened to overhear the woman sitting in back of me discuss, in passionate detail, a meal she had eaten the night before. She described each course in the same way that a friend of mine — a sensualist and a complete roué — talks about sex. She went on about how each strand of linguini had caressed her tongue like a gentle lover and so on. It was both hilarious and oddly erotic.

After about 15 more minutes of this culinary reverie — it all ended with a dessert that sent her into breathless spasms of rhapsody — I heard her snap her purse shut and tell her companion, “And because it was Olive Garden, the whole meal cost less than a good manicure.”

I can’t think of the last time I ate a meal that sent me into such a state, although I can assure you, it wasn’t at Olive Garden. But I can imagine it might have been something Italian that sent my head spinning — it’s a very sensual cuisine. My mother claims to have been seduced by my father over a plate of spaghetti and meatballs, just like that pasta-eating scene in Lady and the Tramp (the bottle of Chianti helped, too). But leaving Freud aside, I’ve known plenty of hot affairs that started over cold antipasto.

And that brings me to a sexy little Italian joint I had never heard of until last month. Ricco’s Italian Bistro is a little neighborhood trattoria, unpretentious and laid-back, tucked into a bland shopping strip across the street from Johnson County Community College.

I’ve eaten at Ricco’s twice, both times taking along friends who grumbled, like they always do, about driving “way out there” for a meal. And, in both cases, the same friends were charmed by the restaurant and asked, “How did you find this place?”

I don’t remember. I vaguely recall a different Italian restaurant in this spot when I worked in Johnson County a decade ago, but I don’t think I ever ate there. And if there ever was an actual Ricco, I never met the guy. One server told me that Ricco sold the business a few years back. Another waiter laughed and said he wasn’t sure there had ever been a real Ricco.

There is, however, a bustling staff of servers, bartenders and managers, their faces all completely different on each of my visits. But I swear the same guy was sitting at the bar both times, nursing a highball. Ricco’s is, after all, the kind of restaurant that would have a regular clientele. And not necessarily because the food is that extraordinary: I’d call it damn good Italian fare — not too fancy, not too Olive Garden. The place is just so likable, even dishes that I thought were just OK, like the unmemorable four-cheese flatbread, seemed slightly more alluring.

The long, narrow dining room is dimly lit with tables draped in black vinyl and pretty little votive candles. I was with Bob and Georgina, who immediately liked the expansive menu, the fragrance of the wood-fired pizza oven, and a chummy server who quickly figured out that Georgina was a little high-maintenance and, shrewdly, paid a little extra attention to her.

We ate the flatbread, which was as soft and chewy as baked pizza dough, with salads for my dining companions and, for me, a fine Italian Wedding Soup loaded with tiny little meatballs. I had made the wiser choice; the Caesar salad was severely underdressed. But sometimes an unimpressive salad course is a good omen, according to the old Italian proverb that goes, “The better the salad, the worse the dinner.” At Ricco’s, the salads (included with the cost of the meal, which also says something) are not so great, but the dinners are winners.

Georgina liked the marinara served with the flatbread well enough to order one of the baked pasta dishes: hearty tubes of manicotti stuffed with ricotta cheese and smothered in the delicately seasoned tomato sauce. It’s a dish I rarely order out because it’s typically so badly done, but Ricco’s was excellent. So was Bob’s custom-made dinner. He won’t eat veal, so he asked the server if he could have a chicken scallopini instead. No problem, he was assured, and the dish was quite beautiful: a golden-seared chicken breast in a supple wine sauce, scattered with capers and artichoke hearts.

Impulsively, I ordered a dish that sounded sexy and rich: two really great, crispy crab cakes sautéed in olive oil and draped in a luscious lobster cream sauce. It was so loaded with aphrodisiacs, I was kind of sorry I wasted it by eating with Bob and Georgina instead of — oh, never mind. It was a lively dinner, and we all went away happy.

I returned the following week with Jennifer, Erik and Franklin. We were all ravenous and shared a creamy torte made with mascarpone and goat cheeses, layered with both basil and sun-dried tomato pesto, and served with wedges of rosemary-sprinkled flatbread. It was wonderful, but I wasn’t so crazy about the pricey little bowl of artichoke dip, which tasted like warm, undiluted cream of artichoke soup.

Once again, the salads were blah, a portent of excellent entrées. Jennifer gave a definitive rave to the penne tossed in truffle oil with a meaty assortment of chopped button and portobello mushrooms. Franklin, Erik and I all went for the bird — a tender chicken Marsala in a satiny sauce for Erik; linguini with chicken and chopped artichokes for Franklin; and, for me, a nice big bowl of fettuccine drenched in a first-rate pesto-cream sauce, studded with grilled chicken and chopped tomatoes.

We had hopes of a rapturous finale, but the dessert tray was a visual bust, and none of the sweets, according to the server, were made in-house. A slab of coconut cake was iced in neon-green frosting. “Is that left over from St. Patrick’s Day?” Erik asked. He and Jennifer ordered anticlimactic cannoli. Bob took three bites of carrot cake and pushed the plate away.

All right, we decided, so the meals don’t end in ecstasy. But just as in real life, coming close is sometimes good enough.

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Categories: Food & Drink, Restaurant Reviews