As Tantalus, the upscale casual restaurant a block west of Vidler’s earned a loyal following of customers who returned for favorites from the epic-length menu. In March, owners Laurie Kutas and John Rooney decided a decade was enough. They changed the name to Medici House, focused the menu on high-end pastas, meats and pizzas, and trimmed the menu. ¶ Ten months later, Medici House is Tantalus again, right down to the homey fried pork chop dinner with chorizo gravy. If anything, the menu has gotten longer. I counted 147 items before the specials. ¶ My recent meal there convinced me that Medici House’s kitchen has an excellent grasp of the basics, delivering above-average dishes that are excellent values. I also got stuck at a lousy table and received clunky service, which sapped my enjoyment of the meal.
The place has two rooms. The dining room is nicer, from what I could tell by peeking through the dark curtains that serve as windbreak inside the front door. Our table was in the other room, more of a tavern setting, with a long bar backed by flat-screen televisions showing football. That was the only table available, though, because the place was packed.
My seat backed up to an emergency exit door facing Main Street. It was too cold to take off my coat. My hands stuck to the table, a piece of classic old furniture whose surface was tacky as moist varnish.
Like to read the menu before ordering? Save time and read Medici House’s online before you go. Forty pastas, 35 pizzas and calzones, 32 appetizers, and nary a mention of partridge or pear tree. We pondered and chewed on some crusty bread that wasn’t warm but clearly was fresh.
For appetizers, we asked for crab boulettes ($11.95), mussels in cognac sauce ($15.95), prosciutto-wrapped asparagus with goat cheese ($9.75) and a spinach salad with pancetta and poached egg ($11.95).
Pizza comes in three styles: 16-inch New York, 14-inch “neo-Neapolitan” (thinner with some char), and for a lesser price, 8-inch Roman-style flat. We opted for the little flat version with cherries, blue and manchego cheese ($10.50).
Among entrees, Cat picked the country fried pork chop with chorizo gravy ($18.95), a returnee from the Tantalus menu. I asked for shrimp and scallop fra diavolo pasta ($23.95). Our guests had butternut squash ravioli ($17.50) and spaghetti carbonara ($15.50).
Three surprisingly fluffy boulettes (crab fritters) came with corn salad and spicy mayonnaise. The crisp spheres contained plenty of crab. The grilled asparagus had two two-spear bundles atop an arugula salad, cooked right and still al dente, with a satisfying amount of chevre, grape tomatoes and balsamic drizzle.
Mike, who has eaten mussels in Belgium and across Europe, thoroughly enjoyed his shellfish. He applauded the broth, garlicky and smoky with bacon. I thought there was too much cognac.
My spinach salad was a do-it-yourself kit, with bottles of oil and vinegar and a bed of greenery topped with hunks of crispy rendered pancetta, thin-sliced red onion and a warm poached egg. I drizzled, chopped and cut until it was ready to eat, which was not a pretty sight. But the salad was robust and satisfying. The fact it was too vinegary was my fault, not the kitchen’s.
The small pizza, which had the thinnest crust I’ve seen, about an eighth of an inch, was a good size for four to share with other things. It balanced salty pork, aromatic blue cheese and bursts of cherry flavor, a pleasant surprise.
Another was the carbonara entree. It was the lightest carbonara I can recall, welcome when so many chefs seem bent on interpreting the classic egg-bacon-cheese pasta as a death-by-dairy suicide pact.
The squash ravioli were satisfying, the pasta squares still al dente. The filling tasted like butternut even through the veil of cream sauce, which had been perked up with capers.
Cat’s pork chop was a guilty pleasure, thickly breaded but not greasy, cloaked in a sauce of loose sausage and cream, over homey mashed potatoes. No wonder the dish returned from the Tantalus menu.
My pasta was cooked well, flavored with a vigorous but balanced sauce of crushed tomato, garlic and wine, with a pleasant chile burn in the background. Two jumbo shrimp and two scallops were fresh and cooked accurately.
At dessert (each $7.50), the red velvet cake was dry and overly chilled, leaving the icing cloying. The crème brûlée had a decent crust and satisfyingly creamy custard but not the vanilla bean grace notes of the best versions.
Our server was friendly but inexperienced. We had to hand him empty appetizer plates as he juggled entrees. Our water glasses went unfilled, as did a request for silverware. Around us, the din as the place filled made it hard to hear my tablemates. There were shortages of teapots, dessert spoons and chocolate cake.
Despite the table, and lack of polished service, we enjoyed ourselves. My dinner at Medici House was a shining example of what great company and good cooking can overcome.
Medici House: 7 plates (Out of 10)
Pastas, pizza and favorites on lengthy menu overcome tough table for enjoyable meal.
WHERE: 634 Main St., East Aurora (652-0341, www.medicihouse.com)
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and noon to 9 p.m. Sunday.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers and salads, $7.95-$13.95; sandwiches, $6.95-$9.95; pizzas, $8.95-$18.50; entrees, $12-$37.50.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.