ROME SERVICE

I don't have to tell you that first impressions can make or break a restaurant. How many times have you been treated to haphazard service, long waits or so-so food on your initial visit to an eatery? These are not things we forget. Bad first impressions can often turn into longterm grudges. I have a small list of places that almost nothing would convince me to return to.

Of all the factors that can influence a diner's first impression, service is foremost in my mind. You can thank Aldo Baldo Ristorante and Marco Polo Cafe, two new Italian restaurants in Scottsdale, for that. While Aldo Baldo's staffers work like cogs in an efficient machine, they show an inattention to the details of service that I found bizarre. On the other hand, the service at Marco Polo was tragically sincere, but you could fly to Los Angeles in the time it took us to score food.

The point here, of course, is not that I had a bad experience. The horrifying thing is that the same thing could happen to any customers--to people who don't publish their opinions, but simply never return. Poor service has a way of leaving a bad taste in the mouth longer than the foulest meal.

For instance, my first visit to Aldo Baldo Ristorante is not disastrous, just flawed. Were I not paid to do so, I probably wouldn't return. But I do, and my second visit goes slightly better.

Nestled on the south side of Scottsdale Fashion Square off Camelback Road, Aldo Baldo is Big 4 Restaurant, Inc.'s newest creation. The restaurant is cheery with the primary colors of 1920s' Futurism, an artistic movement begun in Italy which celebrated "the motion, force, velocity and strength of mechanical forms." Aldo Baldo himself is a fictional Italian inventor and artist. His quotes appear above the restaurant-length open kitchen.

The restaurant's lunch and dinner menus are creative and reasonably priced. Exhausted shoppers and the postwork crowd will feel equally at home here. Dress is upscale casual.

My dining accomplice, Goat, and I stop in for a midafternoon lunch on a Sunday. Aldo Baldo is busy, but not crowded. We order a lime Italian soda and mineral water, which arrive in attractive V-shape goblets. Regular water is brought only on request.

We select soup, salad and two pasta dishes from the lunch menu. As we await our repast, we admire our machine-age surroundings. A basket of pizza bread focaccia would do us good right now. But it is brought as an afterthought with our soup and salad. Its linen wrapper is smudged with tomato. Goat's cup of Tuscan-style bean soup looks good, but I must ask for a clean spoon to sample it. Mine has baked cheese on it. Though the soup has a nice bacon flavor, I'm not wowed by it. At $2, it is lukewarm and overpriced. In comparison, the calamari salad is large. But then, it's meant to be a meal in itself. It sounds like a promising combination of tastes and textures: fried calamari, red potatoes, feta cheese. However, its wilting bed of mixed greens looks slept in and the fried calamari are overcooked, chewy and fishy tasting. Our two pasta dishes are pleasing, though not overwhelmingly large. "This reminds me of goulash," says Goat, of the cavatappi. He's got a point. The mixture of corkscrew pasta, tomato, basil, Italian sausage and fresh mushrooms does evoke memories of dishes with that name.

Linguini with smoked salmon features a generous amount of salmon flaked in a cream sauce of tomato, vodka and dill. The only turnoff is from the greasy fingerprints all around the rim of the pasta bowl. Attention to detail is clearly lacking at Aldo Baldo today.

Goat finishes off the cavatappi and I have the remainder of my linguini boxed to go. I am happy to see leftovers packaged in paper, not Styrofoam, containers. Though we are stuffed, we cannot leave without sampling dessert. Goat bleats for the cookies-and-cream gelato; I request the lemon sorbet.

Again, the glassware is snappy and smart. Both desserts come with an Italian cookie. I like the gelato better than the sorbet, which is lumpy. When I ask the busperson for water, he brings one glass--for me.

Service improves on our second visit, for dinner. This time, Goat and I are seated along the black banquette that lines one wall. Unfortunately, every time someone near me sits or stands, I feel like I'm on a seesaw. This is troublesome when one wants to avoid, say, splattering tomato sauce from one's fork onto one's shirt. Adventurous Goat orders the Sanpellegrino bitter as an aperitif. The ladies at the next table are intrigued by the tiny three-ounce bottle, and ask Goat what he is drinking. Cherry cough-syrup red, but extremely bitter, this imported beverage is obviously an acquired taste.

Our waitress brings us a complimentary appetizer of marinated eggplant and tomato with homemade toast rounds. We munch and watch in disbelief as someone from the staff touches up the black chairs at another table with a black felt-tip marker. Why this has to be done during dinner is anyone's guess.

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