Buoyed by its success as one of Little Italy's best-known restaurants, Sabatino's expanded in the '80s. While my husband and I had dined there repeatedly and enjoyed our meals before that, we thought on our only visit after the expansion that the food, service and atmosphere had suffered. Nothing seemed as nice as it had before.
Based, however, on our recent visit we decided that we had either been too hasty or that "Sab's" had made amends, recapturing the fine food, friendly service and intimate atmosphere we once associated with the place.
Truth is, we'll never know. Truth is, we both wished we hadn't waited so long to try it again.
Welcomed warmly, we were seated in a charming upstairs room with just six tables and a fireplace, graced by a painting of Thomas Jefferson.
The room's walls were rose; the tablecloths, salmon. From the windows, there was a nice view of Fawn Street on a warm Sunday.
The menus looked the same after all these years, although my husband sadly noted the absence of spaghetti caruso (marinara sauce with chicken livers). We were asked promptly if we cared for drinks. We did, and they were good. And so was the rest of our meal.
We began by sharing an antipasto ($5.25 plus 50 cents for Sab's signature house dressing). The large mound of lettuce was topped with moderate quantities of mozzarella, an Italian salami and tomato slices. Best of all was the dressing, as good as we had remembered, but, at the same time, different. We'd remembered a vinegar and oil dressing with lots of shredded Romano. This time, the cheese was still the dominate taste, but the consistency was that of a dressing that had been run through the blender.
The antipasto was served, appropriately, with a basket of Italian bread.
My fettucini alfredo ($11) was very good, though not as creamy as some I've had. The cheese and cream clung thickly to the pasta. I was served about twice as much as I could eat.
My husband's chicken tricolore ($12.75) was a beautiful, magnificent dish -- a treat to the eye and the palate. Two boneless chicken breasts were covered with cheese and surrounded on a large platter by mushrooms and sliced peppers. It was all topped with a hearty white wine sauce. The huge serving was accompanied by a side order of spaghetti and very good marinara sauce.
We split a bowlful of steamed spinach with olive oil and garlic ($3.50). Did I say garlic? Make that GARLIC. The dish was very good, but very garlicky. Sabatino's also prepares the dish with butter instead of olive oil and, if you prefer, without the garlic.
For $6, we added a half-carafe of excellent house white wine.
We finished with two very good desserts, both from Vaccaro's Italian dessert palace.
My rum cake ($3.25) was moist and very rummy. There's no disguising the dominant flavor here. My husband's tartufo ($3.50) consisted of excellent ice cream covered with a thick layer of hardened chocolate.
With two coffees ($1 each) and two drinks, our bill came to just under $60. Once upon a time (which is about how long it had been since we'd been to Sabatino's), that would have been a lot of money for a meal in Little Italy. But considering the expense of dining out almost anywhere, the bill was fair for what we'd had and for what we were taking home -- ample leftovers of fettucini, chicken and spinach.
Our waitress had been attentive and friendly, though just a bit perfunctory. Perhaps that was a reflection of how busy the place was, and how quickly the tables around us turned over.
Had we been wrong in our last assessment of Sabatino's, or had the restaurant regained the charm we had missed? Whichever, this visit made us want to return. Not only is Sab's still one of Little Italy's best-known restaurants, we'd say it's one of the best.
901 Fawn St., Little Italy
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 3 a.m. daily
Reservations: Recommended on weekends.
Credit cards: Major credit cards accepted.
Handicapped access: Accessible; best to make reservations to better accommodate persons in wheelchairs.
Smoking: Separate areas designated.