The stately building that houses Arturo's has come a long way from its early days as a brothel. It still anchors the historic Wortendyke area of Midland Park, but now in a far more gracious way, attracting legions of loyal customers who come for the well-executed Italian food and the convivial atmosphere.
The servers may wear tuxedos, but on a busy evening, you're as likely to find an elegantly dressed couple celebrating an anniversary as you are a boisterous and casually outfitted family group with kids and crayons at the table. Hands-on proprietors Marcello and Mario Allegra, whose family has owned the restaurant (named for their father, Arturo) since 1982, welcome everyone like old friends.
Fortunately, the wait staff's polish extends beyond their attire. Their knowledge of the enormous menu and the dizzying list of specials - recited without benefit of notes - is key to the difficult process of deciding what to order. The plate of sliced salami and aged provolone offered with drinks helps to stave off hunger pangs while you decide.
For the most part, Arturo's serves the Italian food you know. Everything is quite good, and some dishes are extraordinary. For an appetizer called eggplant Sicilian, thin slices of eggplant were layered with tomato and mozzarella, then lightly breaded and fried. The result inspired a word not often used to describe eggplant preparations - "ethereal." The shrimp, oysters and clams in the seafood oreganata featured just enough seasoned crumbs to add flavor, and "Mamma's homemade meatballs" in tomato sauce were so refined they had a pate-like quality. A charming personal touch was evident in the stuffed and fried zucchini flowers - the flowers came from a waitress's mother's garden. Fried calamari, which I consider a bellwether dish at any Italian restaurant, was reasonably tender and lightly battered, but otherwise bland.
Among the entrees we sampled, the special of grilled jumbo prawns (with head on) were the most exotic. Perfectly cooked, they were tender and nicely seasoned with lemon, olive oil and garlic. Arturo's tasty rigatoni Bolognese, which includes almost dry, deeply flavored ground beef and petit peas, may be unusual for some who think of the dish with a tomato-based meat sauce. The veal chop Piemontese, stuffed with spinach, fontina cheese and prosciutto di Parma, was impressive and satisfying, but the marsala and shiitake mushroom sauce that accompanied it was a bit too intense. Lamb osso buco was a hands-down favorite, the meat soft and the rich tomato sauce redolent with eggplant, onions and red wine. A seafood pasta special featuring cubes of swordfish and manila clams was good but a bit under-seasoned.
In addition to the fine flavors, what also impressed me about Arturo's food was that an hour or so after dining there, I did not have that familiar and unpleasant feeling of "fullness" that results from a restaurant's overuse of butter and salt. And, this was following dessert, which at Arturo's is not an afterthought. Don't miss the delightful cannoli pie, made by the owners' mother every day and proudly displayed near the dining room entrance; customers in-the-know order it as soon as they sit down. The startlingly green, house-made pistachio cheesecake is also light and luscious. We took most of it home - I can't remember the last time I asked for a dessert doggie bag!