BUENOS GNOCCHI

La Locanda, 10201 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 998-2822. Hours: Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 5 to 10:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 5 to 9 p.m.

Some scientists speculate that biology is the key to understanding human happiness. Chemical balance, smooth neurological function, even something in our genes, they argue, may predispose certain members of the species to heightened feelings of well-being.

I mention this only because something was causing me to break out in broad grins the nights I visited La Locanda and Gianni Cucina Italiana, two casually upscale north Scottsdale Italian restaurants. And, after some reflection, I'm pretty certain it couldn't have been that I was finally getting my physiological act together. A much more likely explanation for this powerfully good mood: the scents and tastes of dinner.

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La Locanda Ristorante Italiano

10201 N. Scottsdale Road
Scottsdale, AZ 85253-1436

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: Paradise Valley

Operated by refugee Chicago Italians, La Locanda has caught on pretty quickly after only a few months. My guess is that after trying it once, people are telling their friends and coming back. It's not the setting that's captured their imaginations. The most eye-catching decorative touch on the thickly plastered, caramel-colored walls is the "Occupancy 68" fire-code sign. Piped-in Sinatra furnishes the auditory diversion. The opening bread act is the one part of the meal that could use a little tuning up. Sitting on the bread plate at each table is a package of thin breadsticks, imported from Turin. If there were something particularly distinctive about them, I might understand their presence. There's not. And ripping open plastic-wrapped nibbles is not very classy, whether they're imported breadsticks or saltine crackers. Nor will the bread that comes along a few moments later have anyone doing cartwheels. (Maybe La Locanda should think about getting supplied by the excellent Arizona Bread Company, just a half-mile away.) A worthy bowl of chopped tomato, infused with basil, accompanies the bread. But so, too, does a processed Italian cheese spread. The world's greatest cheeses come from Italy (although the French will argue this point). Surely La Locanda can do better than this.

But dinner shifts into high gear once your menu order starts arriving. The plate of mixed grilled vegetables, ideal for sharing, is a good way to edge into the meal. Slabs of eggplant, squash and red and yellow peppers come temptingly charred and brushed with balsamic vinegar. Bresaola furnishes a more subtle, but no less powerful, opening taste explosion. It's a plateful of imported, paper-thin slices of preserved beef, richly textured and intensely flavored. A topping of fresh basil and glorious Parmigiano Reggiano cheese provides additional gilding. This savory appetizer simply sings of northern Italy, and it hits all the right notes. Risotto is a more filling, but no less tasty, way to prime your appetite. La Locanda offers half a dozen intriguing versions, including one blackened with squid ink. But I couldn't resist the most expensive model, blended with white-truffle oil and Parmigiano Reggiano and laden with porcini mushrooms. The kitchen will split an order (the best option, unless you're making this your main dish) without tacking on a plate-sharing charge, an unfortunate practice that's becoming more and more common. If Valley winters chill you to the bone, the soup here will thaw you out pleasantly. The prosciutto-vegetable broth, one evening's special, delivers hearty, homemade satisfaction. Veal, the main source of northern Italian animal protein, is generally a reliable gauge of kitchen talent. La Locanda showed considerable skill preparing the two standards I sampled. Lombata al Barolo features a big, juicy veal chop moistened in an opulent Barolo wine sauce, studded with mouth-watering porcini mushrooms. To my delight, the rest of the platter was just as impressive--luscious, creamed, garlicky spinach and thin slices of grilled potatoes. If you've got $22.95 and an appetite, this is the dish to choose. Ossobuco is equally well-fashioned. Wine-braised veal shank, its tender meat barely clinging to the bone, comes bathed in a fragrant, carrot-flecked sauce. It's irresistible. Sides of spinach and a mound of saffron-tinged risotto perk up an already perky plate. But don't despair if you're not a carnivore. La Locanda is exceptionally adept at pasta. Except for the penne, it's all made fresh, and it's first-rate. In fact, the tagliatelle al ragu di carne is staggeringly scrumptious. Wide, flat noodles come in a disarmingly simple meat sauce, delicately tinged with laurel. What's more, there's plenty of it. It's impossible to eat this without involuntarily patting your belly. The gnocchi, pasta dumplings made from potato flour, may not be quite as ethereally light as those Valley-best models found at Avanti. But they're cleverly zipped up with garlicky slices of Chinese eggplant and tossed in a refreshingly light tomato sauce. I can't remember running into homemade linguini in this town. La Locanda's is worth sprinting over for. That's because it's blackened with squid ink and adorned with ten wonderful New Zealand greenlip and California black mussels, in a zesty, slightly spicy tomato sauce. The menu description, though, needs to be more accurate--it promised linguini topped with "mixed fresh fish." I didn't mind being mussel-bound, but diners taken in by visions of "frutti di mare" may not share my tolerance. At dessert time, if you're not yet sick to death of tiramisu, La Locanda's recipe is just about as good as it gets. Otherwise, sweets lack the oomph of the appetizers and main dishes. Chocolate amaretto flan, for example, may have sounded like a good idea, but it didn't translate particularly well on the plate. La Locanda sends out good vibes. Courteous but not overfriendly servers, efficient buspersons and the buzz of contented diners all add to the meal's charms. This place looks and feels like a winner.

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