PASTA AND ANTI-PASTA

I've been thinking about Perry Como lately. Specifically, I've been thinking about his song "Catch a Falling Star." If you're unaware of Como's scintillating 1958 hit, the idea conveyed in the song is "Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket" . . . something, something . . . "never let it go." While I like this idea of treasuring an unexpected gift, I question that it has to be a falling star. Falling connotes decline. I prefer catch a rising star, but this expression just makes me think of the New York club where rock chanteuse Pat Benatar was discovered.

Anyway, you grasp the concept. Como's song is about identifying something good and not letting it get away. Which is exactly how I feel about Nina L'Italiana Ristorante. Only if ever there was a rising star, Nina Vincenti, veteran pasta maker and restaurateur, is certainly one.

Born and raised in Foggia, a small town in southern Italy, Nina has worked stints at Prego, Allegro, Avanti, and Tomaso's. Most recently she had her own restaurant called Nina's Genuine Pasta House in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The opportunity to open a restaurant with her children, Deborah and Robert Mattsson, lured Nina back to Phoenix.

You and I are the lucky beneficiaries of these family ties.
The menu changes daily. Typically, Nina L'Italiana offers eight to ten entrees, ranging in price from $10.95 to $19.95. Nina herself makes pasta for two or three dishes a night. Pasta too plebeian for you? Nonsense. Nina's pasta is heavenly. She turns mundane manicotti into manmade manna and tired tortellini into transcendental taste treats.

And her seasonings are positively celestial. I sample linguini with clams and mussels here that tastes better than seafood; it tastes like the sea. Spicy, bacon-flavored amatriciana sauce ladled over the thick-shelled, hollow pasta called bucatini makes this hard-to-handle dish well worth the effort. Even a simple olive oil-red vinegar salad dressing turns holy in Nina's hands.

The look of the restaurant is surprising. Contrary to expectations, this is no dark-wooded den dripping with Old World opulence. No, Nina L'Italiana is housed in a former nightclub, the ill-fated Palm Paradise Rum Company, in the Laguna Palms Shopping Center on Bell Road. This knowledge helps make sense of the restaurant's unusual design and layout, which can initially strike one as odd.

For example, the first thing you see upon entering Nina L'Italiana is a square, island-style bar. Not an exceptional sight in a nightclub, but a little unusual for a "nice" Italian restaurant. An elevated nonsmoking section circles the bar and is separated from it by a half-wall partition. Smoking patrons sit in a ground-level area delineated by a trellis.

There are other things that might give you pause. Why, for instance, are disposable-toothbrush vending machines installed in the rest rooms? Why is there a neon palm tree in the round turret window outside? Why are some tables positioned against long mirrors which allow for discreet glances at the crowd or your dining accomplice? Is it so you can examine your teeth to see if you should go buy a toothbrush?

Yeah, you know the answer. But this white-and-teal room, with its alternating Nagels, Renoir prints and family portraits, does need a little explaining. The good thing is you don't have to dress up to feel comfortable here, but you won't feel out of place if you do.

Waiters are formally attired in black trousers, white shirts and turquoise bow ties and cummerbunds. The staff works well together. Water glasses are wordlessly refilled, plates are removed promptly, bread is brought with no delay. Italian is the language of choice, which I find incredibly charming. Call me a sucker for Romance languages. Go ahead, I dare you.

The truth is, there is little here I don't like. Garlic bread is hot, buttered and topped with bits of garlic, red pepper and basil. House salads are a marvelous mix of fresh romaine, arugula, and green- and red-leaf lettuce.

In the realm of appetizers, an antipasto for two is a splendid spread of salami, mortadella, prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, roasted peppers, Parmesan, black olives, turkey--and hearts of palm, if you're lucky. The antipasto also includes the sweetest cantaloupe I have tasted in several years. In fact, if cantaloupe is in season, you might consider ordering melon and prosciutto as an appetizer. Or if the antipasto sounds like too much of a good thing and you like fresh mozzarella, order the mozzarella with fresh basil on plum tomatoes. You can't go wrong with any of these options.

Desserts also change daily. They are exceptional and a bona fide bargain at $3.25 each. In particular, Nina's tiramisu in a glass is terrific. Her version is nearly liquid, topped with chocolate shavings and flavored with brandy and espresso. I also like the rich three-layers-of-chocolate B-52 cake, the dark chocolate tartuffo, and zuppa inglese--a custard confection with just enough chocolate and cherry layering to satisfy the most jaded sweet tooth.

Personal attention and family pride make Nina L'Italiana a special place. When we enter the restaurant for our second visit, we are recognized as repeat customers and warmly welcomed back. Near the end of every meal, Nina leaves the kitchen to see how her patrons enjoyed her food. When she spots a takeout container half-filled with tortellini on our table, she says, "Ah, you'll have a nice lunch tomorrow." She is right.

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