Jan. 11 2012 12:00 AM

Emil's Italian Restaurant is Lansing's oldest eatery, but these days the atmosphere outclasses the food



Emil’s Italian Restaurant emphasizes its family heritage and calls itself a family-friendly eatery. With the soft lighting and intimate booths, many also consider it a romantic destination for first dates or anniversaries. Others liken the atmosphere to something out of a Martin Scorsese mob film, especially when entering from the back door.  

Emil’s has charm, with extensive woodwork, stained glass and Tiffany lamps hanging from a drop ceiling that has seen better days. The aisles between booths and tables are narrow, especially near the back door where one imagines a Goodfella might be squeezing by to belly up to the bar.

Cozy atmosphere aside, Emil’s menu, ostensibly filled with Italian-themed fare, promises an effort to provide the “finest quality food and services available.”

I learned at least one thing dining at Emil’s: Don’t trust menus.

When my companion and I dine out, we like to try what the restaurant is known for. At Emil’s, it’s apparently racks of ribs, which was our first clue that we might not be in for an authentic experience of the beautiful country.

Passing on the ribs, we started with potato wedges, largely because the menu excitedly told us they would be covered in Emil’s famous Alfredo sauce.  

That sauce will live forever in my mind — in infamy. It was overcooked and had broken down visibly before the wedges were served to us. Pools of oil floated alongside the white sauce. Spooning oil away, the remaining Alfredo had an unpleasant grainy texture and left a cottony impression.

It came with bacon bits. We had hoped, after reading about serving the finest foods on the menu, we might see some prosciutto. Nope. We got those dehydrated pebbles that come in jars and likely contain no actual bacon whatsoever.

Things didn’t get any better. 

Our entrées came with a cup of minestrone soup and a salad with house-made bleu cheese dressing. Despite its abundance of vegetables, the soup had little depth beyond a vague impression of beef and tomato. But the worst part was the bloated penne rigate that floated in the little bowl like lumber in a clogged river.  The far-overcooked penne was closer in texture to pudding than pasta.

The salad was a plate of iceberg lettuce, surely poured from a bag, with requisite slivers of carrot and cabbage to add some color without flavor. I had hoped the bleu cheese dressing would partially redeem the salad, and it was creamy, with some nice big chunks of actual cheese. But someone must have mismeasured the amount of vinegar to add — the abbreviation for teaspoon may look like the abbreviation for tablespoon, but when it´s vinegar, if you don’t get it right, it’s tough to eat without squinting.

For the main course, we tried a veal cutlet sandwich and the nightly special: chicken with garlic, lemon and herbs.

The cutlet, served on a fast-food style sesame seed bun, was crispy and cooked well, but nothing special. It was really not a great idea to give it its own breading on top of the massive bun. It was overpowered by the tinny, aggressively acidic pasta sauce that was also all too generously ladled onto out sides of pasta cooked a minute or two beyond al dente.

The chicken, though, did us in. I want to say something nice, but even the skin, with visual evidence of herbs, had no flavor.  My companion remarked that it did at least have chicken flavor.  Too bad it didn’t have much else. 

Again, we found ourselves with an overcooked dish, difficult to even cut into and, instead of juicy white meat, we worked out our jaw muscles chewing through leathery meat that, in the end, literally took effort to swallow. 

Emil’s has a reputation for generous portions, which would have been nice if we had felt compelled to take one of our half-eaten meals home.

Likewise, the bread that was served with our meal — massive, cold slices of the whitest bread I have ever seen with, as my companion noted, a thin membrane of brown skin in place of any real crust — was not worth taking more than a few nibbles from.

I will say something nice: The mascarpone in the tiramisu, with a delicate, silky texture that balanced air and cream, was a pleasant surprise. I don’t want to remember much else about the dessert, but that mascarpone was nice.

The bill came to just under $50. For that money, I could have invested in a Mario Batali cookbook and a few groceries and had a fine, authentic Italian meal at home.  

A fine authentic Italian meal — sounds good. Haven’t had one in ages.