Gut Reaction for March 7, 2013

For Weekly SurgeMarch 4, 2013 

Old World Italian is at 3850 U.S. 17 Bypass in Murrells Inlet, and the number is 357-3494. It’s open from 4:30-9 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays.

Setting the Table

Changes are for the better at Old World Italian Restaurant in the wake of a two-day menu and décor transformation executed in January by the Food Network’s “Restaurant: Impossible” crew.

The Hayek family – including mom Teresa, dad George and son George, Jr. – opened the Murrells Inlet restaurant in 1995. In recent years their passion seemed to waver and the décor became dingy and dated, and effective execution of their immense menu became spotty.

The Hayeks applied to be featured on “Restaurant: Impossible,” hoping the show’s host, Chef Robert Irvine, would come to town and use his team to accomplish a two-day overhaul costing no more than $10,000. Their application was approved, and on Jan. 23-24 the interior was gutted and remade with the help of dozens of local volunteers. Chef Irvine also gave advice about service and helped reinvent and streamline the menu.

The hostess said business has been brisk since the renovation, with an average of 90 diners on weeknights and 100-plus on weekends.

The new décor feels more spacious, features new and more comfortable chairs and has a sleek new bar. A centerpiece of the transformation is a black-and-white portrait of the Hayeks and their three children, reminding everyone of Old World Italian’s roots and soul.

Down the Hatch

The menu, which is available on Old World Italian’s nice new Web site at www.oldworlditalian.com, lists six appetizers for $6-$8. Our party tried four.

Crispy Calamari has whole medium-size squid and large rings deep-fried and served with a house-made chunky tartar sauce; and Bruchetta has four crostini topped by a marinated house tapenade with tomatoes and olives. Those two apps were fine, but the other two were better.

Fried Mozzarella was presented as an almost brick-size golden loaf, topped with freshly grated Parmesan and accompanied by a side of marinara.

“Don’t try to eat all that, honey!” I urged my husband. “You’ll hurt yourself if you try!”

But he did eat almost all of it, and it turned out there wasn’t a solid mass of mozzarella inside. Texas Toast is layered with the cheese and is used to encase the sides before it’s rolled in breadcrumbs and deep-fried. It is delicious.

I thought my appetizer was the best. Two Eggplant Rollatini are luxuriously creamy with ricotta and flavorful with herbs and a tomato/basil semolina broth.

Soups ($4-$5) include Italian Wedding and Minestrone, and three a la carte salads ($3-$5) are House, Classic Caesar and Baby Greens with feta and caper fennel vinaigrette.

Thirteen entrees are $12-$22, and on the night we visited the two most expensive dishes (Pork Osso Bucco and Pan-fried Mahi Mahi) were discounted to $19. One of our friends, a local chef, tried the Osso Bucco that’s served over polenta with anchovy gremolata and demi-glace. At first he was put off by a tangy twang, but the more he ate of the succulent shank the more he enjoyed it.

I was similarly surprised by the tanginess (from wine maybe?) of my house-made Pappardelle in vodka cream with braised bacon and peas, served with a bowl of grated Parmesan. However, after that first bite the flavor became increasingly appealing, and I’d happily order it again.

Another friend had Linguine and Clams with white sauce (you can also get it in tomato broth), and while she didn’t dislike it, she asked for some Alfredo sauce to mix in with the garlic/wine broth. My husband enjoyed his Mahi Mahi, which was covered in an arugula tomato salad and served with olive tapenade sauce and pepper puree.

Two loaves of hot crusty Italian bread served with our entrees was perfect for sopping up our sauces, which are all house-made.

A few other dishes are Stuffed Shells, Shrimp and Scallop Arabiatta, Beef Lasagna, Eggplant Parmesan (you can substitute chicken or veal) and a vegetarian Bella Primavera with broccoli, carrots, mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes and asparagus in garlic and oil.

Check, please

Children have three $6 choices: Cheese Pizza, Spaghetti or Chicken Fingers, and each comes with Italian Frittes.

Eight desserts are $4-$6, and several are house-made. We loved ultra-creamy Ricotta Cheesecake drizzled with raspberry Sangiovese coulis, and our friends made happy noises over their light and fluffy Tiramisu. It’s not on the menu, but there’s also a strawberry version of the Tiramisu.

Our bill for two appetizers, two entrees, one dessert, two espressos and two glasses of wine came to $79.38. The service was extremely friendly and professional, and we will be delighted to dine again at Old World Italian.

Becky Billingsley serves up fresh news daily at MyrtleBeachRestaurantNews.com.

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