ONE ZINGS, THE OTHER DOESN'T

Backstage Restaurant and Bar, 7373 Scottsdale Mall, Scottsdale, 949-1697. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

What's the difference between a restaurant run by an individual proprietor and one operated by corporate headquarters?

At first glance, none, if I could believe my initial impression of the Backstage Restaurant and Bar and Grady's American Grill. These two places, separated by only a few Scottsdale miles, seem to be fraternal twins. Both spots target couples and families looking for a casual meal out. The menus are closely matched. Both offer familiar appetizers like pizza or chips and dips; both feature grilled meats and pasta entrees. They keep the same hours. And they charge just about identical prices for their fare.

But these turned out to be surface similarities. It didn't take long for the differences to jump out.

Location is one. The Backstage operates in one of my favorite corners of the Valley, the area by Scottsdale Civic Center. From its second-story perch, the restaurant gives diners a stress-busting view of strolling pedestrians, greenery and fountains dotting the grassy mall. In a town where three quarters of the restaurants seem to overlook a strip-mall parking lot, the Backstage's setting is practically bucolic. It's a real plus.

The view inside the airy room is just as soothing. The look vaguely suggests rustic Italian. Murals depict pillars, vines and faux windows overlooking an Italianate countryside. Ornate grills are mounted on the walls, and the windows are hooked up to nifty iron tracks so they can be cranked open when the weather warrants. (Fresh-air fiends can also opt for the attractive misted patio.)

The Backstage's food is just as eye-opening as the scenery. From preparation to plate presentation, this kitchen is obviously not content simply to go through the motions.

Ever since Backstage opened about 15 years ago, its signature dish has been lahvosh pizza. The latest owners wisely haven't messed with tradition. The Armenian cracker-bread pizza comes in 20 different styles, from the smoked salmon and goat cheese model to the Thai chicken and rice noodle version. Two people could make a meal from the large size, while the small is perfect to share as an appetizer nibble.

So is the sahuaro dip, a zippy mix of spinach, chipotle pepper and garlic blended into melted cheese. Fresh chips help, and so does a remarkably fresh, fiery pico de gallo that tasted like it was prepared to order.

The alternative to appetizers? You'll have to tamp down hunger pangs with conversation. For some reason, the Backstage doesn't bother with a breadbasket.

Consider cooling off with some cold suds while you talk. The Backstage has put together a nice list of brewskis, about 40 bottled imports (check out Mamba from Africa) and microbrews (try lemony Celis White), and a half-dozen beers on tap. Or if you're into H2O, choose from six mineral waters.

The main dishes display an inventiveness, quality and heft that can make the prices look like misprints. Most of the entrees go for three digits, two of them to the right of the decimal point. Even though dinners come with no bread, soup or salad, you can safely count on the Backstage to give you your money's worth.

The pork chop certainly does. It's a first-rate, tender hunk of meat, grilled just right, gilded with a perky mint salsa. But even determined carnivores may be deflected from their purpose by the side of mashed potatoes. These are some of the best spuds I've had in town: thick, rich and flecked with pieces of skin.

The roasted half duck is another winner, especially when you factor in the very reasonable $11.50 tag. The platter features a leg, thigh and breast, the breast meat cut away from the bone and fanned across the plate. The duck is juicy, the skin is crisp, and it's all moistened with a rosemary-spiked fruit sauce. A mound of mashed sweet potatoes, broccoli and a couple of offbeat red pepper blini round out this very attractive dish.

The smoked chicken linguini hits you like a two-by-four. There's nothing very subtle about this heavy-duty mix of grilled chicken breast and pasta, coated with a strong-scented pesto sauce overflowing with sun-dried tomatoes, pine nuts and cheese. If your taste buds have been aestivating during the summer, this plate will deliver a wake-up call.

Another pasta option also sports hard-hitting flavor punch. The penne arrabiata comes loaded with garlic, olives and peppers in a basil-tinged tomato sauce. But instead of arrabiata's usual sausage and bacon, the chef plays to the vegetarian crowd by tossing in buffalo mozzarella in their place. It works fine.

Desserts aren't nearly as imaginative. Mud pie is mutantly large, a huge mound of coffee and butter almond ice cream drenched with hot fudge sauce, whipped cream and almonds. It's a caloric way to gird three or four people against the trip back into the July heat. There's also a completely forgettable cheesecake alternative. If you're still hungry, you're probably best off ordering the fresh fruit compote.

The Backstage's setting and prices, as well as the variety and quality of the fare, make it a very pleasant Scottsdale casual dining option. My advice: Wait for October and sit on the patio.

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