CHECKERED PASTA

Remember the rash of movies two or three years ago where everybody was switching bodies with everyone else? Fathers with sons? Women with men? Judge Reinhold with Fred Savage?

As far as I know, body switching exists only in the minds of desperate screenwriters. Too bad. If it were a reality, and restaurants were eligible for the process, I would recommend Giovanni Restaurant and Ristorante Gigi on Camelback, two of Phoenix's newer Italian venues, as prime candidates.

In their present incarnations, Giovanni and Gigi are two moderate-to-expensive Italian restaurants with obvious weaknesses. I prefer the food at the former, the service and atmosphere at the latter. After a body switch--or, if you will, "building switch"--we'd have something infinitely better: one good Italian restaurant, and one that could be eliminated entirely. After all, how many imperfect, not-cheap, semifancy Italian restaurants does Phoenix need?

Fewer, I say. Located at 40th Street and Indian School, Giovanni Restaurant continues to strive for the upscale audience that former occupant Alexilion sought. Its decor strikes a balance between modern and formal. A glass partition separates the large, open dining room from the bar. Stylized art deco prints are positioned on the walls. White linen and a single real red rose top each table. A room full of living, breathing bodies would help alleviate the cool feel of the restaurant, but on the evening a dining accomplice and I visit, attendance is sparse.

Two things help to warm the atmosphere. First, owner and manager Giovanni Messina is a gracious and attentive host. Locally, he has worked as maitre d' of Tomaso's, and before that, at Orangerie. During our meal, he materializes tableside whenever food is delivered or dishes removed. "Mama mia," the man in the European-cut suit frequently exclaims. "Just like Mama makes it back in Sicily." When plates are taken from us conspicuously empty, he jokes, "What was wrong with it?" Messina succeeds in his role because he knows when to be on hand without making diners claustrophobic.

Second, the restaurant's choice of music also helps take away some of the chill. The soundtrack, on the night we visit, offers a variety of singers performing familiar vocal standards. Among those artists we can identify with certainty: Carly Simon, George Benson, Doris Day, and yes, that humble Hoboken paesan, Frank Sinatra. The music soothes and entertains us while we endure waits between courses.

Because, sadly, service is an issue at Giovanni Restaurant. It starts off well enough, but by the end of the meal, the level and quality have deteriorated. Our waiter is only partially at fault. The large room is staffed by two waiters and a busboy. Parties appear to be assigned alternately in order of arrival. Unfortunately, the other waiter's tables finish relatively quickly, while our waiter's linger on, through dessert and coffee. In the end, the numbers defeat him: He simply can't give the type of attention he should to each party when he is working tables all over the dining room.

And so we all suffer.
Which is a shame, because Giovanni's food is good--very good, in fact. After we gobble some complimentary bruschetta, our appetites are further whetted by a lovely mixed antipasto. The cold plate features a generous assortment of meats, such as salami, prosciutto and mortadella; cheeses, like fontina, buffalo mozzarella and provolone; and piquant vegetables, ranging from roasted peppers and sun-dried tomatoes to artichoke hearts and tart black olives. I like it very much.

After a small wait, our waiter brings our second course, a split portion of cappelini pomodoro--angel-hair pasta with tomatoes and basil. As regular readers of this column may recognize, this is one of my favorite dishes. Giovanni does a good job with it. The pasta is tooth-tender, the fresh tomato-basil mixture bold with the flavor of garlic. My accomplice and I practically lick our plates clean.

Again a small wait ensues before our soup and salad are brought. "I'm sorry," says our waiter. "Not too many people order four courses." No? Well, they should. To order just pasta or just an entree here is to miss part of the whole picture. Of course, in Italy, soup would be eaten first, and salad--if part of the meal at all--would be eaten last. But that's okay. As my seventh-grade home economics teacher said, as she reprimanded me for holding my utensils European-style: "We're in America now."

So, as an American, I have to say I like both the soup and salad served to us as our third course. Giovanni's pasta e fagioli soup is fantastic: not salty, but rich with white beans, spiral-shaped macaroni and fresh tomato. A salad of radicchio, romaine, tomato and Bermuda onion is also pleasant, though I'm initially surprised that all the ingredients are chopped.

Our waiter comes to speak to us during our next downtime. Referring to one of our entrees, he says, "The zuppa takes a little longer. We try to make it as fresh as possible."

The wait is worth it. Zuppa di pesce Siciliana is a mouthwatering combination of shrimp, scallops, clams, mussels, calamari and halibut in a sauce redolent with tomato, garlic, parsley and onion. Served in a white ceramic crock, it is far too big to consume in one sitting--especially after what I've already eaten--but the seafood is fresh and cooked to perfection. Thick slices of yellow polenta, made of coarse cornmeal, are a tasty accompaniment.

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