(Grand Rapids, MI) Once upon a time, there was a pretty decent Italian restaurant in Cascade called Tuscan Express. Although we had eaten there only a few times, we found their preparation authentic and the experience positive. Unfortunately, just over a year ago, they were forced to shut down due to unpaid taxes. A couple weeks ago we got word that a new restaurant called The Euro Bistro opened in the space, serving French food. We checked out their website, made reservations, then meet Jo and Ivan for dinner on Saturday night.

Although they had informed us their liquor license would be in place by the time Saturday rolled around, we find out the hard way that The Euro Bistro has not yet secured the right to serve their extensive wine list. Strike one. When we arrive, the hostess leads us to a tight table for four despite there being two more spacious empty tables nearby. Strike two. Our table just happens to be next to a large family with small children, even though there is a quiet, private unoccupied table in the back room. Strike three. We close our menus and vacate the premises. Hopefully they'll get their act together when (and if) we decide to spend our money there.

In the meantime, we have to find another place to eat for dinner. After some quick discussion, we decide on nearby Noto's, although our past experiences haven't been all that memorable. The sky opens up and starts sprinkling cold rain. Is this a harbinger of a bad meal to come?

He Fed:
I find Noto's a weird combination of old-school restaurant and banquet center. On one end of the building, a dining room filled with standard-issue wooden tables and chairs; on the other, a series of convention-like rooms that often host wedding receptions. We are greeted warmly by the hostess and she shows us quickly to a table that is not too near other diners. The light is dim, the conversation subdued, and the decor is low-key, simple. Our water glasses are filled promptly while we peruse the menu and wine list. Wendy, our server, tells us about the specials. She is efficient and friendly, making me feel like we're in good hands for the evening.

To begin, we order the antipasti platter and a bottle of 2006 Dolcetto d'Alba. The wine is dry, fruity but not sweet...decent table wine. At first, I am unexcited by the antipasti platter (it's difficult, in my opinion, to match the quality of Bistro Bella Vita's antipasti). After digging through the sheer variety of items, however, I realize I'd jumped the gun. Proscuitto, salami, and cured sausage match nicely with big chunks of smooth blue cheese, shavings of puckery parmesan, giant salty green olives, marinated peppers, and artichoke hearts.

Although the risotto special (curried chicken and peas) sounds good, I decide to try the featured chef entree: two medium-rare beef tournedos, topped with creamy gorgonzola, and a fig reduction sauce. Fig and steak? Yes! The sweet fig pairs heavenly with the unseasoned, earthly beef while the gorgonzola spread spikes each bite with the sharp tang of mold-tinged cheese. Our second bottle of wine, a 2003 Barolo, is much more complex and fun to drink, evoking shades of pinot noir but with backbone enough to stand up to the steak and cheese.

Jo opts for a salad and Ivan gets the seafood linguine. Juliet orders the hazelnut-crusted walleye. The delivery of our courses is leisurely; our entire meal takes nearly two and a half hours...not unusual for a lunch in Rome, but a dinner in Grand Rapids doesn't usually take quite this long. Luckily, we are having a good time talking and taking the pace slow.

At the end, Wendy presents us with eight dessert selections, making three trips to the center table where all the dessert "models" are displayed. I feel bad for her, particularly since three-quarters of our table is too full for anything more. Curiously, I am still a bit hungry! I order the cannoli, which turns out to be nearly tasteless. Disappointing, perhaps, but I'm still buzzing from the success of the fig/beef combo to really care that much.

Finally it is time to go. A gentleman meets us at the front door to explain the earlier sprinkles have erupted into steady downpour, and offers us a loaner umbrella to our car. It is the final nice touch on an evening of great service at a restaurant where we'd expected much less. While some of the dishes weren't a rousing success, there were enough memorable moments to put Noto's back on my radar when we're considering local Italian cuisine.

3.5 out of 5 mezzalunas
She Fed:
We’re thrilled to be out with friends, but Jo isn’t feeling very well and Ivan isn’t a huge fan of Noto’s so I figure we are in for a mediocre night at best. I don’t think they are as “wowed” as Jeremy and I are, but for the two of us the experience was an eye-opener.

We order the antipasti platter and it arrives with all the usual suspects—roasted red peppers, olives, meats, and cheeses—but there are a few standouts on the tray: veiny, hunky chunks of blue cheese (a few of them are bigger than the olives); spicy (paprika maybe?), well-marbled sausage that’s chewy and full of flavor; fresh baby artichoke hearts with tender stems still attached. I am momentarily transported to Rome where I devoured more artichokes than any human should readily admit. Molto bene!

Both Jo and I are freezing. The air conditioning is blowing on our table, but lessens a bit once our server turns it down. The service is very leisurely, and while it’s wonderful to be able to catch up with friends, there are times when it almost seems like our server might have forgotten us. She’s so sincere and helpful each time she stops, though, I can’t help but like her. In addition, she saves the day when we order a second bottle of wine and the restaurant is out. She brings us a substitute that we enjoy more than the original. Best of all, she charges us a comparable price even though the second bottle is listed on the menu at a much higher price. My mood lifts considerably.

The menu is pretty extensive and the wine list is literally hard to hold, it’s so massive (all Italian wines and it must weigh at least five pounds). I decide to forego pasta or meat, and settle on the hazelnut-crusted walleye, which comes with an asparagus medley, mashed potatoes, and a little “primi” of pasta. So much for a light dinner.

I could write about how perfectly the fish is cooked, or how the potatoes are decadently luscious while the veggies are crisp and clean...that the primi is just enough to give me a taste of pasta without filling me up. I could go on for pages about how good the food is.

At the end of the night, however, the level of service and attention to detail impresses me. When we walk in and ask if we can get a table for four without reservations, the hostess says, “Of course. Thank you for dining with us tonight. We appreciate you choosing us.” We receive a similar thank you as we leave. Here’s the kicker: when we head out the door, we discover rain is coming down in buckets. And our umbrella? In the car, naturally! Luckily for us, a Noto’s manager is stationed at the door handing out umbrellas. He gives one to Jeremy, who races for the car. When Jeremy pulls up, the manager walks me to our car keeping the umbrella on me the whole time; he’s getting rained on during all this, by the way. I hand him Jeremy’s borrowed umbrella, he bids us a good night and asks us to return. Now that’s extraordinary customer service you won’t find at any chain restaurant.

I intend to go back for more.

3.5 out of 5 mezzalunas

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