by Lauren McAllister

The thrill of the road trip never lessens for me, even if the trip isn't very far. So on a sunny evening, setting out for Cheney via the Cheney-Spokane Road made me almost giddy. I've been hearing about Lenny's for a while and decided to see if it was a good reason to leave the Big City.

Lenny's must be what Billy Joel had in mind in his song, "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant." "We'll get a table near the street, in our old familiar place, face to face, a bottle of red, a bottle of white, it all depends upon your appetite."

Lenny's is that kind of a neighborhood spot. It's not fancy -- in fact, in a former life it was a drive-in burger joint. The tiny dining room and kitchen make for tight quarters, but the place was humming with activity the night we visited. We opted for the breezy covered solarium in front of the restaurant. The decorating scheme seems to be that, contrary to what you may have heard, more is in fact better. Black checked tablecloths added to the busy scene, and even the ceiling was festooned with plastic grapes and vines, while water was served from cheerily painted glass pitchers.

Service was brisk -- this is more of a diner than a fine restaurant. But the menu is so vast it took us a while to choose. Unfortunately, nothing on the appetizer list seemed interesting -- where's a good antipasto platter when you need one? But fortunately, dinner entrees include your choice of soup or salad. I opted for the homemade minestrone, and it was a real treat. Crisp tender celery mingled in a fragrant tomato broth with beans and pasta and just the right amount of seasoning. Topped with a bit of cheese that quickly melted into stringy goodness, adding richness to each bite, this soup was a winner.

My companion's house salad was a pretty standard iceberg lettuce affair, gussied up a bit with a black olive and slice of pepperoni. It was crisp and cold and served its purpose of stimulating the appetite for the meal to come.

The specialties of the house include the requisite spaghetti with meatballs or Italian sausage ($10.50). More interesting-sounding was the chicken ziti primavera ($12.50), a penne pasta dish with alfredo sauce and garden vegetables topped with saut & eacute;ed chicken. The Halibut Lenny ($16) sounds like a winner -- stuffed with shrimp, crab, mussels, clams, wrapped in filo dough and baked.

I nearly fell for the chicken canneloni ($11.50), but instead opted for the pollo arabiata ($12.50), mainly because it promised tomato sauce instead of the creamy sauce with the cannelloni. The platter of spaghetti tossed with sliced chicken breast, prosciutto, fresh Italian parsley, artichoke hearts and lots of freshly sliced mushrooms was zesty, in part from the white wine and garlic in the sauce and the ample prosciutto in the medley. But it lacked the potent tomato-y taste I had been looking for. It was one of those pasta dishes that is exceptional on the first bite but which fails to hold interest after about five minutes. The startling thing was that after five minutes, the dish still looked as full as it had when the server set it in front of me. These are some seriously gigantic portions.

My companion's shrimp scampi pesto ($14) featured saut & eacute;ed shrimp with fresh basil, olive oil, garlic and grated parmesan in a light cream sauce. The shrimp was tender, flavorful and plentiful among the penne pasta. But the sauce, while a beautiful bright green from the basil, failed to deliver in the taste department.

A side of fettucine alfredo ($6.50) was also very mildly flavored, but here it seemed to work better, infusing a warm, comfortable richness into the pasta. Incidentally, we took so much food home that a side of pasta could easily fill your belly, making this place a real bargain.

The only dessert made in house was a flan ($3), so I tried it. Sweet and eggy, the flan was a treat. Lenny's also offers some of the usual cakes and pies from outside bakeries.

Lenny's menu features a remarkable array of sandwiches, and from the ones we spied at other tables, there's no skimping on the fixings in these massive oeuvres. Prices for sandwiches run $7.50 to $8 and include fries or salad.

Lenny's is intriguing. Although the food did not provoke joyous exclamations, the soup was a hint of what could be. And our meals were tasty and serviceable -- and ample. Since the menu is so big, it would be fun to try more of their offerings.

So if the call of the road is whispering in your ear, heed its gentle coaxing and head out of the city limits. Create your own little scene in an Italian restaurant.

Publication date: 06/24/04

Summer Parkways @ South Hill

Through June 20
  • or