Second Helpings

Summer in the City: Gershwin wrote that in summertime, the living is easy.
Obviously, the man never spent July in Phoenix checking out restaurants for a living.

I'm nearing the end of my annual Best of Phoenix explorations, panning for restaurant gold to put on this year's list. As usual, I've run across acres of fool's gold. So when I do strike the genuine article, I tend to get excited.

I struck the mother lode at two familiar places, both topnotch restaurants currently operating on all cylinders.

Casually swanky Rancho Pinot Grill has everything--food, setting, service--in perfect working order. It's at 6208 North Scottsdale Road in Scottsdale (468-9463).

Actually, the restaurant made a good impression before I even got there. I had called early in the week to make a 7:30 reservation for Friday. "We have openings at 7 and 8:30," I was told. But I couldn't make it at 7, and 8:30 was too late. "I'll try again in a few weeks," I said. But the reservation person was too smart to let a customer slip away. "I'll put you down for 7:30," he offered, "but we'd appreciate it if you could come as close to 7 as possible." We arrived at 7:15 and got seated immediately.

I've had wonderful meals here before, but this time the kitchen outdid itself. The grilled squid salad ($7) is a thing of beauty, tooth-tender squid offset by crunchy celery, with preserved lemon adding just the right flavor boost. Teamed with the outstanding home-baked bread (good enough to sell retail), I could have been happy to fill up right here.

But then I'd have missed one of the best vegetarian platters I've had in ages, a crispy rice-wheat berry cake surrounded by greens and vegetables that tasted like they had just been pulled from the ground ($15). Homemade fettuccine ($16), tossed with fresh tomatoes and basil, is also a hot-weather-entree winner. And the summery-warm nectarine tart, paired with homemade ginger ice cream ($6.50), sent me home with a big smile.

Franco's Trattoria also put a big grin on my face. It's at 8120 North Hayden in Scottsdale (948-6655). The place has been around almost long enough to be called "venerable." But this superb Italian kitchen shows no sign of slowing down.

Nobody gets a meal off to a faster start than Franco's. That's because you sit down to gratis parmigiano-Reggiano and pecorino Romano shaved off big wheels, along with fresh Italian bread and focaccia. Get a glass of Chianti, and you could call it a night.

But then you'd miss Franco's risotto, flat-out the best in town. I shared a lobster/wild mushroom version ($19.50) that got my head spinning in a 360-degree swivel. The chef also does wonderful things to veal, like the battuta di vitello ($18.75), pounded, grilled and delicately perfumed with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and sage.

The pastry chef also has her act together. The profiteroles are rum-soaked sponge cake layered with chocolate mousse and apricot preserves. And think of the panna cotta as creamy, Kahlœa-spiked Italian flan.

--Howard Seftel

Suggestions? Write me at hseftel@newtimes.com or New Times, P.O. Box 2510, Phoenix,

 
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