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Cini: Italian chow big on heart, low on flavor

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The newest restaurant in Saint Louis University’s neighborhood, Cini, has me worried.

Lying under the Flats apartments just off of Grand Blvd. and Forest Park Ave., the Italian restaurant is modeled off the wildly successful formula of Chipotle Mexican Grill. Swapping out the cilantro for saffron, Cini offers the same caliber of convenience, freshness and hospitality.

Walking in, the layout is nearly identical to Chipotle. Stationed behind a long line of ingredients is a small brigade of smiling cooks. While some welcomed me, others were busy behind the stove grilling chicken, chopping cucumbers or straining pasta.

After getting a few recommendations from the knowledgeable and endearing staff, I had quite the spread of food before me. First, I tried the namesake of the restaurant, arancini, a classic Sicilian street food initially rolled by little Italian grandmothers to utilize leftover risotto.

While the creaminess contrasted beautifully with the crunchy Parmesan coating, I was surprisingly underwhelmed by Cini’s original arancini. Where was the seasoning? Where was the acidity to balance the richness of the cheeses?

I hoped the traditional Pomodoro sauce would yield a bit of both to my next bite, but it felt monotone.

Slightly disappointed, I turned with slight hesitance towards my next bite, the tomato basil bisque. The luscious soup was the answer to my prayers, a balanced culinary trifecta of texture, seasoning and sophisticated flavor. The acidity of the tomatoes was tamed by the sweetness of the cream. The herbs flavored the cream. And the precise thickness of the soup made it somehow soft as silk.

It was a beautiful yin-yang of flavors, and hands down the highlight of my meal.

Unfortunately, my pasta dish failed to match the complexity of the bisque. To top my penne pasta, I chose citrus pesto marinated chicken with the Diavolo sauce and then artichokes, arugula and sliced mushrooms. Though it sounded quite delicious to me, I could have saved myself the walk through the arctic tundra across SLU’s campus and microwaved a Lean Cuisine in my apartment for half the price. Where was the spice of the supposed “devil sauce?” How did the chicken taste so bland after marinating in such vibrant flavors?

After a few passes of the salt and pepper shakers I found my only refuge to be spoonfuls of the tomato basil bisque between bites of the pasta. Finally giving up, I boxed the rest of my meal, contemplating the fate of Cini while staring out the window of the storefront.

I worry about Cini’s future because quite soon the inspiration for their very concept will be landing in the space-ship form of old Del Taco. Barely on their feet as a business, Cini will be toe to toe with Chipotle, the empire of “fresh fast food.”

Bland penne dishes will not beat delicious two-pound Chipotle burritos. Use of fresh ingredients will not be an upper hand against the company that first gained recognition for making fresh food the apex of their business model. In short, the Italian food I tasted will not compete with the near cult-like following of Chipotle.

A fairly drastic change must be made at Cini before they greet their new neighbor, because while they may have great heart, they don’t have the flavor to match.

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