PASTA MANANA

Il Forno, 4225 East Camelback, Phoenix, 952-1522. Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week.

Uh-oh.
Whenever I hear the mandolin strains of "Santa Lucia" and "Come Back to Sorrento" as I enter an Italian pasta restaurant, I've not only got a fix on the decor and menu, I've also mentally digested the meal and loosened my belt. I picture a plump, apron-bedecked owner-chef wandering about the room, his genial wife running the register and their relatives providing down-home service. I see posters of San Marco Square and the Colosseum lining the walls. And I imagine noisy families consuming huge platters of pasta in a sea of red sauce and platefuls of candied, fruit-flecked ice cream.

But a visit to recently opened Il Forno demonstrated how fickle is the gift of prophecy.

Yes, we listened to the greatest clich‚s of Italian music. But outside the aural arena, this place sports the gleam of a high-tech country inn. It's upbeat, airy and "dining-out" special.

There's a Vermeer floor of black and white alternating tiles. Huge jars of pasta serve as a dried arrangement, while baskets of bread appeal to the senses of sight and taste. In the corner, a wood-burning forno swallows up pizzas and calzones. The human decor also works. For a few moments, I thought I had missed the Colter Street off-ramp and driven straight west to the Hollywood Freeway, exiting at Melrose Avenue. Our fellow diners looked as if they had been assembled by Central Casting. If there's ever a Best of Phoenix category for "Most Cool-Looking Diners in a Restaurant Featuring Main Dishes for Under $10," Il Forno's a lock. Our hip, ponytailed waiter, an L.A. refugee, told us how, preparing to move to the Valley, he sold his Porsche for cash one minute and got relieved of it at gunpoint the next. Happily, it didn't affect his service, which was genial, professional and knowledgeable. The smooth, Italian-suited manager also had us checking our latitude and longitude. He greeted us graciously, directed some dark, foreign words toward the poor soul who had miscalculated our check and warmly shook our hands when we departed. We usually have to drop about 50 bucks a person before Valley restaurateurs will grab our mitts and tell us they appreciate the business.

We started the meal off with an outstanding appetizer of polenta pomodoro, crisply fried cornmeal in a light tomato sauce. Polenta may be peasant food, but Italian peasants eat a lot better than most of the American McMiddle class.

Not quite as successful was insalata caprese, a small salad of fresh buffalo mozzarella and tomatoes. No problem with the delicate white cheese (it bears no resemblance to the rubbery cubes ladled on a pizza), but any dish featuring tomatoes in November is unlikely to be completely rescued by even the finest olive-oil-and-basil dressing.

The freshly prepared pasta main dishes blocked out the music as effectively as earmuffs. I was so focused on my eating that Il Forno could have piped in Balinese drum music and it probably wouldn't have registered.

Three-cheese pasta came thick with the distinctively sharp taste of real, freshly grated Romano and Parmesan. These wonderful imported cheeses aren't cheap, so Il Forno's tag of $7.50 seems more than reasonable for something you can't get in every neighborhood trattoria.

Fresh gnocchi, small pasta dumplings made from potatoes, is another specialty that Chef Boy-ar-dee probably won't be offering anytime soon. Il Forno serves up a generous heap of these doughy, spoon-size treats in a mild, undistracting tomato sauce. Best, though, by unanimous consent, was maccheroni al pesto, a filling bowl of pasta tubes heavily drenched with cream, sweet basil and pine nuts. Athletes into carbohydrate loading won't be doing themselves any good filling up on this dish, unless they're competing in a 1K waddle. But the rich, intense flavor more than compensates for any nutritional deficiency. Too bad Il Forno doesn't take the small step to furnish a couple of extra nutrients. Anyone who wants some greens has to order a $5.50 salad. And there's not a vegetable in sight on the menu. Dishes are cheap enough so that I wouldn't mind paying a buck more for some steamed broccoli or marinated carrots. And, if nothing else, they'd at least give diners something else to look at besides a heap of pasta.

Il Forno does a creditable job with pizza, too. Our substantial quattro stagioni--four seasons--came with ham, mushrooms, peppers and artichokes. It's a tasty item to share as an appetizer.

Only the calzone proved a bit disappointing. It was large and puffy enough to house a size-ten wing tip. And, unfortunately, there seemed to be room left for another shoe, because it contained such a meager amount of ham, cheese and mushroom stuffing. Hey, guys, fill er up.

No spumoni, tortoni or Italian ices for dessert here. Tiramisu, served in an ice-cream-sundae dish, has the required rich mascarpone cheese and cocoa kick. Warm zabaglione, a velvety blend of egg yolks, sugar and Marsala wine, packs a caloric and alcoholic wallop. Dainty diners can stick with excellent espresso, thoughtfully accompanied with irregular lumps of brown sugar, a nice Continental touch.

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