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A taste of tiramisu--espresso-dipped ladyfingers mixed with mascarpone cheese and dusted with tons of cocoa--got his engines revving. The terrific wine-poached pears, topped with an incredibly fruity raspberry sorbet, launched him into another galaxy. Sipping his espresso, patting his stomach and sighing the sigh of the contented, my companion finally conceded that a meal of newly discovered northern Italian dishes made him at least as happy as the discovery of a new star. And considerably sleepier. L'Assaggio, 50 North Central, Phoenix, 252-7242. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 5 p.m. to closing.
Brillat-Savarin came up with another sharp culinary aphorism, whose truth is beyond dispute: "Tell me what you eat," he wrote, "and I will tell you what you are."
Well, I ate the food at L'Assaggio, and I'm unhappy.
It's a spiffy-looking place, done up in easy-on-the-eye green and white. Philodendron-filled latticework provided a pleasing, informal touch. A tape of Pavarotti singing "O Holy Night" and other Christmas favorites several weeks into the new year provided a touch of weirdness.
I fought off unpleasant premonitions as our breadbasket arrived. Not over the bread, which was merely nondescript, but the butter. It came in the form of individual coffee-shop-style pats, hardly the vehicle I expected in an upscale northern Italian eatery featuring $20 entrees. A little detail, true, but as it turned out, a symptomatic one.
On a quiet Saturday night, the problems began with a waiter trained at the Laurel and Hardy Serving Academy. We'd ordered appetizers, a pasta course and main dishes, anticipating a leisurely, multicourse meal. But he brought out the appetizers and pasta together, while forgetting one of the appetizers in the process.
He plopped down the jumble of dishes--remembering I got both the carpaccio and the risotto--and fled, not knowing how to set things right.
The carpaccio came festooned with slivered artichoke and thin slices of real Parmesan cheese, an appealing combination. But the meat itself lacked the buttery quality that made it irresistible at Un-Bacio. Except for the timing, though, the seafood risotto lacked nothing. Perfectly prepared, rich with mussels, octopus, squid and shrimp, the bowl released a lovely seafood-and-tomato aroma around the table. My enthusiastic companions and I played dueling spoons over it.
I expected a lot more from the tagliatelle al pesto, homemade egg noodles in a deficient pesto sauce. The lusty kick of basil, olive oil, Parmesan and pine nuts never really showed up. Instead, it tasted like just a bland bunch of noodles. As we were nibbling on the remains of the first two courses, out popped the waiter bearing salads. "Are you finished?" he asked, as he scooped up the unfinished dishes and set down a plateful of mixed greens of no particular interest. I guess he took our silent astonishment for a "yes."
With one exception, the three main dishes we sampled did nothing to enhance the reputation of northern Italy as a food lover's paradise.
The too-thick veal in the cotoletta alla milanese tasted second-rate, gristly and chewy. The surrounding breading, fried in olive oil, not butter, had only an institutional flair.
Gamberoni all' arancia promised prawns cooked in fresh-squeezed orange juice, a potentially tempting combination. But the platter contained six extremely boring, medium-size shrimp that would have looked more at home surrounded by cocktail sauce and some toothpicks.
The veal chop grilled with butter and sage, however, was outstanding, a flavorful, tender, pale-pink hunk of meat. And the crisply roasted potatoes and garlic-studded spinach that came alongside kept up their end of the bargain. Why couldn't everything have been this good?
The desserts were unappealing, and the portions were small, too. Tiramisu seemed routine, not intense enough to get excited about. And we had to fight our way through the dry ricotta cheesecake to reach the cheesy flavor. This place has ambitions, but neither the food nor the service has yet matched them. Until L'Assaggio resolves its perplexing inconsistency, it's ciao time.