Tucked into a strip mall that would challenge the most talented maze-running rats, Kenny's Italian Kitchen isn't easy to find by way of address. The restaurant's so far removed from the intersection of Belt Line Road and Dallas Parkway that street names and numbers don't make much sense; diners are well-advised to meander until they spot the neon green signs for "meatballs" and "veal."
Few restaurants telegraph their intentions as plainly as Kenny's Italian Kitchen, the third user-friendly restaurant from Kenny Bowers, who's had impressive success with Kenny's Wood-Fired Grill and Kenny's Burger Joint. The eatery's a third-generation riff on noodles and red sauce, designed not to recall the old country but the East Coast cookery its memories inspired.
You may want to take another swig from your straw-wrapped bottle of Chianti here, because we're about to get meta: Kenny's Italian Kitchen is a re-creation of a reinvention. "You will swear you just dined at a neighborhood Italian joint in the Northeast," the restaurant's website promises. Indeed. You will swear it upside-down and sideways, or risk being seated beneath the neon "Bada Bing" sign on your next visit. Capiche?
Like Tex-Mex, Italian-American is a freestanding and legitimate homegrown cuisine (although it could use a snappier name). Admiration for the soups of Puglia and Piedmontese risotto doesn't, or shouldn't, preclude affection for pans of burnished lasagnas gurgling with cheese and bronzed baked ziti sheathed with garlic and oregano. There's nothing wrong with making Italian-American classics the centerpiece of a restaurant. But if a restaurant's going to work in such an intensely familiar genre, its dishes have to be pretty good.
You can't fool Americans with spaghetti. There's not a diner who can twirl a fork who hasn't eaten hundreds of plates of spaghetti. The U.S. Army has been feeding spaghetti to its troops since World War II. Schoolchildren eat spaghetti, prisoners eat spaghetti.
Americans know spaghetti. So a restaurant can't serve a middling plate of spaghetti and expect customers to cock their heads and say: "Well, isn't that an interesting take on spaghetti." Restaurants that have a tenuous grasp on such standard preparations have two choices: They can get better, or go bigger. Kenny's Italian Kitchen's gone with the latter.
The portions at Kenny's are so overwhelming that it's almost impossible to notice anything else. Balance and seasoning seem like secondary considerations when faced with the very real question of how many days it might take to subdue a single serving of chicken cacciatore.
Kenny's approach could be defended as pastiche, except that customers are charged for it. A bland, pounded chicken cutlet the size of a human face doesn't seem so cute and kitschy when it's priced at $16. Nor is it especially satisfying to pay $25 for a bone-in veal Parmesan most of which ends up left on its vintage-y, faded red-fringed plate.
To be clear, I'm not typically cowed by large amounts of food. I've been known to parry waiters' recitations of the dessert menu with a second entrée order. But scanning my table at Kenny's, still set with an unfinished appetizer, unfinished salads and entrées, I had the sensation of staring through a magnifying glass. Everything was huge.
I'm not sure how Kenny's benefits from browbeating its customers with such massive servings, since the practice cranks up the bar for evaluation. The question becomes not "Is this an acceptable dinner?" but "Is this an acceptable dinner, breakfast, lunch and dinner again?" In most cases, Kenny's dishes can't meet that exacting standard.
If Kenny's could bring its prices in line with a chain restaurant like Carrabba's, it could be a fine neighborhood spot. Kenny's serves a number of decent dishes that might not merit a trip through the kitchen's magnificent giant-portion-expanding machine, but could be just the thing after a marathon Sopranos viewing session.
Décor-wise, the restaurant's grand Italian-American theme has been scaled back to Recession Era levels. There are heavy red curtains on the windows and red-checked tablecloths on the tables, but the hastily hung posters of Frank Sinatra and James Dean give the room an air of impermanence. It could be decorated for prom.
Much of the food is similarly half-hearted. To start, there's a wet and lemony Caesar salad of pale green romaine chopped down to nibs the size of checkerboard squares and disconcertingly spongy, warm croutons with all the structural integrity of puffed marshmallows. Other salads include a chopped salad, gorgonzola salad and a tomato burrata salad that gets a permanent slot on the menu—tomato season be damned. But while the tomatoes are pale, the green pesto's vivid and the soft white cheese is tangy. Even better, salads are offered in half-portions, an option that's not mentioned on the menu.
"I just have to enter it in the computer as a sub Caesar," explained a server who, like most of the servers we encountered, seemed to be stuck in an adjustment phase. Servers repeatedly told my table more about behind-the-scenes doings than we needed to know, usually speaking in restaurantese. Still, even if their instincts were off—one server was deeply alarmed by my drinking what I guess would now be classified as a "clean" gin martini, and enthusiastically offered to bring me a corrective side of olive juice—they were generally polite and efficient.
Kenny's turns out a nicely tender calamari, easily the best of three hot appetizers I tried. Sausage and peppers seemed like a safe choice, but the dish was oddly reminiscent of an oily mound of pork and vegetables Rat Packers might have encountered in a chop suey joint. The sausages were sliced extraordinarily thin and tossed with slippery red pepper spears, leaving a dominant impression of grease.
Three billiard-ball sized meatballs, blanketed with a thick layer of cheese, were tainted with a fishy flavor, as though the ingredients had made one another's acquaintance in the cooler. Not that there was too much meat to worry about: The undercooked meatballs were stretched to the brink by breadcrumbs and onions.
Kenny's serves the usual lineup of pastas: There's fettuccine, ravioli and gnocchi with a pudding-like potato filling. The gnocchi are served with a floury Gorgonzola sauce, tempered with walnut and shredded bacon, and a bright tomato vodka sauce that's a smarter pairing for the house bread than the mild olive oil on offer.
None of the pastas I tried could reasonably stand alone, which makes the restaurant's decision to serve unadorned mounds of spaghetti with every veal and chicken dish strange. Perhaps the kitchen realizes nobody could possibly polish off a stack of its soggy chicken Parmesan—yup, Kenny's piles chicken on top of chicken, double-down-style—and noodles too.
The veal and chicken preparations largely overlap, and if the veal picatta I tried is any indication, it doesn't really matter which meat you order. The picatta had an artificial lemon-detergent cast, and the dish didn't have any discernible veal flavor. The sauce on a chicken Marsala, laid beneath a pasture of limp sautéed mushrooms, was muddy and overpowering.
I did enjoy spaghetti with white clam sauce, mostly because the clams tasted fresh and oceanic. The sauce was a bit sour, suggestive of cheap cooking wine, but I'd order the entrée again.
I can't say the same for dessert: While the tiramisu might stem a tiramisu craving, I can't justify paying $10 for an enormous serving of a just serviceable dessert.
Perhaps overpriced, oversized dishes really were a hallmark of the Italian-American restaurants from which Kenny's draws its inspiration. If so, that's not a tradition worth reviving.