North Forks

Dahl & Di Luca, 2321 West Highway 89A, Sedona, 1-520-282-5219. Hours: Dinner, 5 p.m. to close, seven nights a week.

This is not a pleasant time of year to live in the Valley of the Perpetual Sun, unless you're a lizard or a water-park operator.

For the next several months, we can all plan to enjoy Phoenix's traditional summer amusements. Valley newcomers might take note of these popular activities: watching the electric meter spin homeowners into air-conditioned bankruptcy; grilling burgers on the barbecue without ever putting a match to the charcoal briquets; bloating up on 44-ounce Big Gulps and Thirstbusters; and trying to remove your hands from the car's steering wheel without leaving any skin behind.

Is there any cure for a Valley summer? My cat knows how to deal with the heat. She finds the exact spot where streams from two air-conditioning vents merge, and sleeps until Columbus Day.

Feline wisdom, however, is lost on us bipeds. We humans only know one way to cope with the desert inferno: Get out of town.

So I pointed the car north and headed to the New Age Sedona high country. Like most Phoenix weekenders, I didn't care what kind of vortex I got sucked into, as long as it was a cool one.

When it comes to finding a place to eat in unfamiliar territory, I seem to possess a powerful vortex of my own. I've been blessed with a sixth restaurant sense that generally enables me to sniff out where the good meals are. That sense isn't completely infallible--once, in Iran, it led me into a place whose specialty was whole boiled sheep's head.

But I thought the chances of running into whole boiled sheep's head in Sedona were pretty slim, so I confidently relied on my instincts. They led me into Dahl & Di Luca.

It's an Italian place, about 18 months old. The proprietors--Andrea Di Luca, a native of Rome, and Lisa Dahl, a native of Indiana--have created an intriguing restaurant setting. A lavish mural depicting a cherub and dragon looks down on diners from the domed ceiling. Faux Roman columns line the room, and colorful paintings hang from the walls. Maybe this is what it might be like to dine in the Sistine Chapel, if the Chapel's guardians were also to hire a duo to perform Billy Joel and James Taylor hits for diners' entertainment.

There's an energetic buzz here that clearly indicates patrons are having a good time. They're certainly enjoying the warm, crusty dinner rolls, particularly the whole-wheat model zipped up with olives and sun-dried tomatoes. You can ratchet up the flavors even further by dunking the bread into a garlic-studded olive oil.

Appetizers exhibit flair and skill. If your Sedona getaway doesn't include romance, the roasted head of garlic with goat cheese makes a good option. Fried calamari are crunchy and tender. And the polenta parmigiana is flat-out luscious, a thick wedge of grilled polenta draped with cheese and a vigorous basil-marinara sauce. Another benefit: It's hefty enough for two people to share.

There's nothing remarkably trendy about the main dishes. But there's no need to be cutting-edge when the entrees are this tasty.

Take one of the evening's specials, Gamberi Mediterraneo. Any judgment must start with a critical assessment of the shrimp. My verdict: These five meaty, jumbo crustaceans meet all quality specifications. They come wrapped in bacon and smoothed in a light lemon sauce. Exotic? Hardly. But I doubt I could have been happier with this platter had it been served in the middle of a vortex force field.

Another special, fettuccine reale, is especially well-fashioned. There are two keys to this dish--pasta and seafood. Dahl & Di Luca doesn't get its noodles out of a plastic bag--it makes its fettuccine fresh. You can feel and taste the difference at first bite. It also tosses on heaps of aquatic fare, including shrimp, scallops, clams, mussels, fish and one enormous whole prawn, complete with head, eyes and antennae. The ingredients are zestily moistened in a white-wine sauce freshened with sun-dried tomatoes, basil and capers. Now, lusty Italian seafood isn't something visitors normally associate with Sedona. But this platter is good enough to appear on the Chamber of Commerce's list of tourist activities. It certainly should move ahead of "Factory Outlet Shopping" and "Finding the Right Crystal Pyramid."

The carnivore in your party is going to be pleased with medaglione di filetto. Two thick, grilled tenderloin medallions come coated with a full-bodied mushroom sauce and accompanied by roasted potatoes and mixed vegetables. At $15.95, the price is right, too.

Pasta fans have about a dozen menu options. But I can't imagine the kitchen can improve on the tortellini, richly draped with Alfredo sauce and studded with prosciutto, pine nuts and peas.

Some of the sweets are enticing. Don't bother with the supplier-provided desserts, like the coffee toffee chocolate mousse cake. It sounds great and looks great, but there's no taste to it. Instead, stick with the house-made treats, like the rich cannoli, flecked with chocolate chips, and creamy, Kahlua-flavored tiramisu, dusted with cocoa.

Sedona's magnificent Red Rocks knock you out during the day. Look for Dahl & Di Luca to knock you out after the sun goes down.

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