BUENOS GNOCCHI

Gianni Cucina Italiana, 8320 North Hayden, Scottsdale, 998-2507. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Dinner, Sunday, 5 to 10 p.m.

Like La Locanda, Gianni also is attracting large numbers of regulars. Even during my midweek, off-peak-hour visits, the room was crammed. In fact, the room is one of Gianni's attractions. It's voguishly spiffy, with natty, life-size pictures of diners sketched in black and white on the walls. A large table in the room's center also catches your eye; it's attractively festooned with loose pasta, bottles of wine and containers of herbs. Tucked away in a corner is a smaller table displaying homemade breads and hunks of Pecorino Romano cheese. To sharp-eyed gourmands, it's the most appealing sight of all.

That's because, moments after you're seated, servers slice off generous slabs of cheese, fill a basket with fresh-out-of-the-oven Italian bread and focaccia and bring them to the table. Then they pour some olive oil on a plate, for dunking pleasure. The bread and cheese are a smart touch, in both senses of the word, and they make an immediate, wonderful impression. Not so the skimpy polenta pomodoro appetizer, a tasty but insubstantial nibble. The best way to get full benefit from the bread and cheese is to order the antipasto platter. The promised bresaola didn't show up on it (the kitchen substituted some less exciting, and less expensive, capacolla), but the rest of the plate left no room for complaint. After merrily scooping up prosciutto, grilled eggplant, fresh mozzarella, tomato, peppers and bruschetta between bites of bread and cheese, I was almost ready to call it a night. The soups almost made me wish I had. The two I sampled were definitely the meal's low point. Thin, watery minestrone had only a few desultory vegetables floating about. And the stracciatella, a chicken broth with eggs and spinach, had little flavor. Maybe the chef doesn't have his heart in them. But there's no doubt that he goes all out when it comes to pasta. Most of the pasta is freshly made, and it's superb. Pappardelle con porcini, in fact, goes beyond superb; it's sublime. The broad noodles come in a voluptuous cream sauce, thick with earthy-tasting porcini mushrooms. This dish is a treat, one of the tastiest ways I know of to part with $11.95. Tagliatelle Bolognese may not be quite as richly elegant, but it's impressive in a simple, straightforward way. The key? A hearty, on-target tomato sauce, deftly seasoned and embellished with ground meat. Gnocchi, too, benefit from an intense tomato sauce. Somebody in this kitchen knows how to make pasta sauces. Gianni's risotto is just as skillfully prepared. The risotto con salciccia takes full advantage of some fragrantly scented sausage, combining heady aroma with lip-smacking flavor. While the menu offers 18 wide-ranging pasta dishes, it confines itself to seven dull-sounding meat platters (grilled breast of chicken, veal with cream and pepper) and a few nightly specials. One of them, veal Marsala, more or less convinced me to stick to the pasta. I could deal with the somewhat-heavy-handed wine sauce. But one of the three veal medallions was tough and chewy enough for me to throw down my knife in despair. If the Valley ever holds a tiramisu taste-off, Gianni's version is a lock to make the finals. Loaded with cocoa and mascarpone, it breathes new life into this clich‚ sweet. The operators also have the good sense to bring in Berto's gelato from La Fontanella; it's a heavenly dose of chocolate hazelnut ice cream studded with high-proof pieces of baba au rhum. Yum. Although only marginally more expensive than a Basic Noodle Joint, Gianni delivers extremely high dining value along with a very comfortable dining experience. Don't be put off by the crowded parking lot jammed with overpriced luxury-model cars. Scottsdalians obviously know a good eating deal when they see one.

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