The Italian Renaissance comes in two flavors: There's the "high" art of Michelangelo and the "low" art of Lucrezia Borgia. Restaurant Renaissance sadly leans to the baser version. You can find a dish or two that do some justice to its Italian origins, but for the most part the cooking is barely a cut above that in any ordinary sports bar, and I don't mean in Turino.
Renaissance is an unassuming little place with 10 tables and bar seating just right for singles perusing its well-chosen wine list. A dedicated clientele has been coming to this cozy neighborhood spot for five years, but aside from the pleasant atmosphere and friendly service, it's hard to understand the attraction as of late.
An occasional dish offers a bit of hope, but mostly at either end of the meal. The bruschetti ($4-$6.50) are good appetizers, especially one with artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers and olives. The bread is nicely grilled, the vegetables smoothly melded together: a simple dish, but not so easy to do. A more elegant version blends grilled prawns, strips of prosciutto and hazelnut pesto: a crunchy combination of salt and pungent garlic. Bookending a dinner there's a fine tiramisu ($6.50), laced with coffee liqueur and dense with mascarpone, though the cake is light as silk, and crunchy shavings of burnt chocolate.
In between, however, you take your chances. The osso buco arrives underbrowned and consequently tastes insipid and mealy; a good cold-weather version was smothered in mushrooms, dark as a forest floor, and accompanied by parsnips and other tubers, but a recent version came only with barely edible string beans. A bowl of cioppino, that great Genoese fish stew, was similarly over the hill, the fish and mussels tired and lacking freshness, the broth heavy and overladen with tomato paste. You're in for even greater disappointment if you order the New York sauté (a $15 pile of sausage, chicken and shrimp over pasta); it's no more than an excuse for fuel.
By all means avoid the meatballs, which ought to be termed "meal-balls," they were so grainy. Renaissance is plagued by inconsistency: Thus the restaurant's delicious, buxom seared sea scallops ($12) are compromised by a lackluster, mushy risotto.
To top things off, a recent order of cheese ravioli turned out to be spinach ravioli, and when the child at our table ordered milk she did not expect it in a glass full of ice.
The translation of tiramisu, the name of one of the restaurant's best dishes, is "carry me up." The unspoken continuation is "to heaven." This neighborhood haunt recently acquired a new chef, which means it may gain surer footing in the future. But for now, very little at Renaissance will levitate you to tiramisu's lofty precincts, let alone to more modest, earthly delights.
Renaissance, 344 NE 28th Ave. 236-8165. Dinner 5-10 pm Tuesday-Saturday, 5-9 pm Sunday. $$ Moderate.