Saving the best until last has been a host's tradition since the Wedding Feast at Cana.
Maison Marconi, a hallowed downtown restaurant, seems to consider it a tradition worth upholding, at least judging from a recent lunch there.
That is not to say that the rest of our meal was not good. Much of it was, but the entrees did not measure up to the sundae made RTC with Marconi's chocolate sauce, another local tradition, or to my dining companion's perfect raspberries served with a healthy splash of cream.
Marconi's, in a large row house on Saratoga Street, has two dining rooms. One is a rather formal room along the right side of the house; the other is a more casual room at the back, just in front of the kitchen. This is where we sat. It is a homey room, despite the bustle of tuxedoed waiters through the kitchen's swinging doors.
Our waiter was prompt, attentive and even a bit charming without being overbearing. He brought a thin loaf of French bread and butter swirled in tiny individual cups with our menus.
The menu was in two parts: a large printed sheet, about half of which was given to beers, wines and liquors and the other half to standard courses; and, with it, a badly typed list of specials, additions and some repetitions. This sheet had little organization and made ordering somewhat difficult.
My co-diner opted for Chicken Cacciatora ($7.95). I asked the waiter to suggest something lighter and he recommended the shrimp and crab salads. I chose Shrimp Salad ($9.50). We added a side order of Fried Eggplant ($2), another dish for which Marconi's is well known.
The cacciatora was three pieces of bone-in chicken in a hearty tomato sauce. That was all. No rice or pasta; no salad. My companion said it was quite good, however.
My shrimp salad was flavorful; the shrimp were good-sized and tenderly prepared without a lot of mayonnaise. The serving was rather small, however, given the price. It was really just a couple of dollops on a salad plate topped with strips of pimento and served with pickles, olives and a hard-boiled egg.
The ample eggplant lived up to its reputation. The outside was crusty without being greasy and the eggplant tender and sweet. It was served cubed in a bowl.
In an era when food has been elevated to an art form and some chefs are as concerned with presentation as with taste, Marconi's seems to be holding to its old ways. It is certainly not big on how the dishes look -- not that they look bad -- but few would accuse them of being pretty.
"I hope you saved room for dessert," prompted our waiter as he cleared the table.
When we asked for his suggestion, he said the Chocolate Sundae was the thing. I had decided on that before I arrived, but his recommendation was attractive. My companion, however, opted for the more healthful raspberries.
The sundae is a make-your-own affair that comes in two bowls: In one is a healthy dip of French vanilla ice cream. In the other, the sauce. The sauce is deeper and richer than any I had tasted -- almost like cake frosting that had been liquefied somehow, said my companion.
My companion's raspberries were fresh and sweet, served ungarnished in what resembled a soup bowl.
Although the desserts were perfect, I found Marconi's overall somehow lacking -- in the care taken to preparing and serving the food and in the atmosphere. And the food was too expensive for the quantity. Our bill, with one glass of wine, one iced tea, one hot tea and a coffee, was $33.
106 W. Saratoga St.
Hours: Lunch, noon to 3:30 p.m.; dinner, 5 to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday.
Reservations: None accepted.
Credit cards: Major credit cards accepted.
Handicapped access: Limited access.