Spaghetti Western

Cowboy Ciao, 7133 East Stetson, Scottsdale, 946-3111. Hours: Dinner, 5 p.m. to midnight, seven days a week.

Looking for a new restaurant experience? These days, Scottsdale's the place. Looking for an old restaurant experience? Scottsdale's still the place.

If you're prowling for new culinary kicks, put Cowboy Ciao on your list. This oddly named enterprise had me scratching my head when it opened several months ago. What kind of fare, I wondered, would a restaurant called Cowboy Ciao be serving? An early press release promised a "collision of Tex-Mex and Italian." Yikes.

I foresaw eggplant-Parmesan burritos, lasagna fajitas and barbecued osso buco, a high-impact gastronomic collision that even seat belts and air bags probably couldn't handle. And think of the entertainment possibilities: Indians dancing the tarantella, cowboys crooning "Come Back to Sorrento" and fully outfitted mariachis playing an aria from La Boheme.

Fortunately, Cowboy Ciao doesn't live up, or down, to my fevered imaginings. The kitchen has a real grasp of the culinary arts, displaying a creative restraint that neither the restaurant's name nor its shorthand description of the fare suggests.

And food's not Cowboy Ciao's only strong point. This is the best-looking restaurant I've seen in quite a while.

It's a horseshoe-shaped room, with the tables lined along the curved outer edge. Long, arched windows provide an airy touch. Overhead, the dark-blue ceiling is fancifully painted with gold stars and swathed with fabric. Beaded chandeliers that look like they came from the Addams family mansion add a surreal note.

A clever piece of wall art features a benevolent angel painted alongside a kitschy black-and-white photo of short-skirted cowgirls. They're pulling on a rope, which extends outside the frame. Follow the rope, and you'll see it's lassoed around a metal cutout of Italy, designed in the shape of a cowboy boot. Even thick-headed, art-resistant folks can't help getting the message: The heavens are saluting the union of the American West and Italy and, thus, by extension, the concept behind Cowboy Ciao. Who says modern art doesn't speak to us?

Cowboy Ciao's food speaks to me. Dinner gets under way with a freebie: grilled tortillas fanned around a garlicky mound of white bean hummus, seasoned with olive oil and lemon. If you don't mind paying for a pre-entree nibble, you'll get your money's worth, and then some, from the outstanding carpaccio, a lovely Southwestern take on an Italian favorite. Here, the thinly sliced beef isn't raw, but slightly seared and coated with peppery spices. Then it's lightly drizzled with chile oil, and teamed with shavings of pecorino Romano. The taste is exquisite, and the portion is adequate for two people to share, if they can agree to.

The loco burro penne (who dreamed up this name?) is a heavier way to edge into dinner. It brings together pasta, spinach, mushrooms, pine nuts and cotija (a salty, crumbly Mexican cheese, a bit like feta), smoothed in a vigorous red pepper sauce. If your taste buds have been napping, the flavors here will wake them up. The antipasto salad, meanwhile, demonstrates that the kitchen isn't exactly hung up on tradition. Greens, provolone, tomato, prosciutto and lentils are all chopped up and tossed together and dressed with a vinaigrette. However, I'm not sure this novel arrangement of ingredients is exciting enough to merit a nine-buck tag.

The main dishes sport some real flair, without ever threatening to go over the edge. Lead your group's carnivore directly to the Chianti filet mignon, a buttery hunk of tenderloin that's been marinated in wine and herbs. Every place in town serves ahi tuna, but Cowboy Ciao keeps you from nodding off by moistening the fish in a tequila-lime marinade and pairing it with a crunchy jicama salsa.

This kitchen can give me the bird anytime. The whole chile-lime game hen is maybe the juiciest, tastiest poultry around, infused with a spicy, citrusy marinade and accompanied by a first-rate cranberry-pecan relish and a veggie medley of snow peas, squash and red pepper.

The hearty Tex-Mex turkey meat loaf platter has its charms, as well. The meat loaf is thick, but light, almost fluffy, lined with a thin layer of Cheddar and seasoned with a helpful bit of fennel. A garlic- and onion-laden bread pudding furnishes outstanding support, as does the quinoa. (Pronounced "keen-wah," it's a trendy, ricelike Incan grain, loaded with nutrients.) The bland black bean relish, though, could have used a bit more punch.

Your group's vegetarian also has some options. The mushroom pan fry is a good idea that's also well-executed. Shiitake, cremini and button mushrooms are coated with a rich ancho chile sauce and sprinkled with Mexican cheese, and placed over polenta cakes. There's also a daily roasted-vegetable plate, served with quinoa, black beans and red potatoes.

The one entree letdown was the oven-steamed sea bass. I enjoyed the Mediterranean flavors--it's rubbed with an olive paste and teamed with a tasty eggplant peperonata. But somebody let the sea bass cook too long, until it was too tough and rubbery to savor fully.

Cowboy Ciao produces its own desserts. One, the sweet risotto, is especially compelling. It's a thick, heavy disk of molded rice, with a caramelized glaze and studded with raisins and pistachios, swimming in Tia Maria, a coffee-flavored liqueur. The chocolate lottery is a flourless chocolate torte in a strawberry sauce. Why chocolate lottery? Perched on top is an instant, scratch-off lottery ticket. (Note to New Times' accountants: I didn't win.) I was less impressed with the bizarre gelato pretzel pie, fashioned from cookie crumbs, ice cream and broken pretzel pieces. And I was positively turned off by the restaurant's insipid version of espresso, a four-dollar weakling called "Turbo joe."

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