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By the time the plates are cleared, you'll probably be so happy you'll want to linger. Go ahead. The flan dessert doesn't get star billing, but it's expertly done, good enough to do a fancy restaurant proud.
Dinner at San Diego Bay may not be the trendoids' idea of a dream restaurant evening. But if words like "cheap," "authentic" and "tasty" turn you on, this place is one dream you won't want to wake up from.
Aldo Baldo, Fashion Square, Scottsdale Road and Camelback, Scottsdale, 994-0062. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 9 p.m.
9201 S. Avenida del Yaqui
Tempe, AZ 85283
Earlier this year, Aldo Baldo's bosses gave this long-running place a substantial menu makeover, turning the restaurant into a seafood spot. The move makes business sense, because the proprietors already run two of the Valley's better fishing holes, Steamers and the Oyster Grill.
But they've cleverly distinguished Aldo Baldo from its siblings by giving all the dishes Italian names and a vaguely Italian sheen. Give them credit for more than just the concept. The fish here is gorgeous and the kitchen knows how to cook it. And with entrees topping out at $15 (except for a lobster special), the prices are certainly right, too.
Despite its age, Aldo Baldo still looks smart. The neofuturist decor--black tables and chairs, fanciful displays of 1920s-style kitchen equipment, colorful sea-blue panels hanging from a dropped ceiling, lots of polished metal--is almost enough to make you forget you're in a cookie-cutter mall, designed by people who devote more attention to foot-traffic shopping patterns than aesthetics.
Aldo Baldo's appetizer list has been designed to celebrate the twin virtues of simplicity and familiarity. You could write it yourself: shellfish, steamed and raw; stuffed mushrooms; salads; bruschetta. Oysters on the half-shell have the fresh, briny taste that oyster lovers prize. The fried calamari is well-fashioned, lightly battered and just out of the fryer, accompanied by an addicting roasted-pepper-and-tomato dipping sauce. The steamed mussels, however, are less successful. I'm not a big fan of greenlip mussels--they tend to be rubbery, and these were no exception. The broth, meanwhile, lacked sufficient white wine and garlic oomph.
The breadbasket is a cheaper way to take the edge off your appetite, and at Aldo Baldo it's a worthy one. You get two kinds of soft, doughy focaccia, one topped with herbs, the other flavored with sun-dried tomatoes.
The menu features pizza, pasta and ocean life. The pizza is small, but extremely tasty. The shrimp-and-artichoke model doesn't stint on the toppings, and the three cheeses, basil and roma tomato adorning it furnish lots of enjoyable background flavor. In comparison, pasta is somewhat pedestrian and somewhat pricey. Eleven bucks for six cheese-stuffed ravioli, for example, is no bargain, especially when there's no sign of the prosciutto it was supposed to come with.
But while there are hundreds of places in town to get pizza and pasta, there are darned few that offer high-quality seafood. Going to Aldo Baldo and not ordering fish is like going to a premium ice cream shop and asking for frozen yogurt--what's the point?
The stuffed-swordfish platter is superb, as good as I've had in a long time. A thick, fist-size hunk, the swordfish is very lightly grilled to translucent perfection by an attentive kitchen. The spinach, roasted pepper and pine nut stuffing doesn't get in the way. The side dishes, however, do. Both the wonderfully cheesy rice and luscious grilled squash made it hard for me to figure out where to direct my fork first.
The slab of ahi tuna is prepared as if it's prime beef. Rare on the inside, slightly charred on the outside and encrusted with black pepper, the outstanding tuna gets a boost from a fragrant red wine sauce. The only misstep? I couldn't find any of the fresh fennel (which I adore) that the menu promised.
If I eat one more piece of salmon, I may start swimming upstream and looking for a place to spawn. But Aldo Baldo breathes new life into this restaurant staple, first coating it with brown sugar and a bit of mint, then pairing it with penne pasta doused in a creamy smoked tomato sauce. The sugar and smoke make a good team, although the mint takes some getting used to.
At $19, the chef's special gives you an opportunity to indulge your lobster fantasies without taking out a second mortgage. We had a beautifully meaty creature, two tails and two claws, scented with garlic, cheese and a hint of lemon. Fresh fettuccine in a winning cream sauce is a side-dish bonus.
Desserts aren't the showstoppers the fish dishes are. Chocolate fudge cake is reasonably chocolaty; the peach polenta torte is annoyingly sweet; and the Snickerdoodle cheesecake should be renamed Snickerdoodle bread pudding. The coffee and espresso, though, are first-rate.
Aldo Baldo proves that old restaurants don't have to die or fade away. If they have on-the-ball management, they can be successfully reinvented.
San Diego Bay Restaurant:
Seven seas stew
San Diego-style shrimp