After watching all eight seasons of the Sopranos and Godfather I, II and III, I know a little bit about syndicates. They who help you out in a jam and then expect to be repaid.
The first few times they send an enforcer, they aren’t there to kill you — they’re there to warn you. They’re there to show you that you can make the most of a bad situation, but you’ve got to try hard.
Sometimes, when you go to do a dining review, you’re that mobster. You don’t want to hurt anybody — you’d rather help them see the error in their ways.
So upon visiting the Newport Syndicate, I didn’t want to break anyone’s legs. But I wanted to say, “Hey, you can do better, capiche?”
We arrived almost at sundown on a Saturday night, and if a place is going to shine this is the time. I’d called to make a reservation and had gotten voicemail, and apparently the reservation had never made the book. So we were seated up front next to the windows — not an optimal seat but tolerable. So far, so good.
We decided to start the evening with Campari and soda, a nice Italian cocktail. When it arrived without a slice of orange, I knew that the bar tender, at least, was a fugazi. The wine list features some fair choices under the “Interesting wines” category, and the Shiraz especially was worthwhile. Less successful was the Chianti. If your focus is Italian, wouldn’t you want the Chianti to be good?
There were bread and butter plates on the table, so we waited for bread to arrive. It didn’t. Our appetizers appeared quite promptly though.
I had the mussels, a special for the night. Seasoned flatbread chips surrounded a large bowl of bivalves in traditional white wine and butter preparation. Bread and butter would have been lovely. The empty bread plate stared at me in reproach.
My husband ordered the fried cheese ($5.95), which surprisingly was the best dish of the night. Not little fingers but breaded slices of mozzarella, seasoned with oregano and pepper, served atop chunky homemade tomato sauce.
The house salad ($4.95) was unremarkable: bland greens, two thin rings of red onion, two cherry tomatoes and bottled dressing that was nearly unrecognizable as blue cheese. The Caesar salad was worth the $1 upgrade, with two genuine anchovies on top and loads of pre-shredded commercial Parmesan and seasoned croutons.
Our fellow diners seemed quite boisterous. The table who’d arrived just ahead of us had been winners at the Lane’s End Stakes at Turfway earlier in the day and were clearly enjoying the celebration.
There were several larger parties in the dining room and the private room, but nothing that would make me think the kitchen was overwhelmed.
My husband had the Garlic Shrimp with angel hair pasta ($14.95), and the shrimp were definitely not undercooked. My Steak Michael ($19.95) was topped with lots of sautéed red and yellow peppers but missing the fresh basil the menu promised. The side of broccoli was indeed fresh, and the steak was medium rare as ordered.
I didn’t like the excess of chopped garlic, though, on both the steak and the mussels. A little fresh garlic is so much nicer.
There were two choices for dessert, so we opted to share the three layer chocolate cake — a dense slab of chocolate fudge mousse with a dollop of whipped topping, surrounded by a drizzle of raspberry sauce that tasted medicinal — and weak American coffee. They’re hoping to have an espresso maker soon, and I’m sure that will be an improvement.
The Syndicate is a piano bar, so we waited patiently for the music to begin — but by the time we left at 9 p.m. it had not. We saw musicians coming in with instruments, but we were disappointed they never actually started to play.
I couldn’t be a mob guy: I don’t want to be a hitman, and I don’t want to hurt The Syndicate. I think they’re genuinely trying to fill up a building with happy people, feed them, make money and succeed.
I reviewed The Syndicate years ago when it was a Jeff Ruby restaurant, and the space hasn’t changed. It still has an off-the-strip-in-Vegas faded glamour. But the food — while value-priced — needs a little polish, and the music, like the bread, should arrive during dinner.
Go: 18 E. Fifth St., Newport
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday; 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 11 a.m.-2p.m. Sunday.
Payment: All major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Pastas and Seafood
Accessibility: Fully accessible
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