Penne for Your Thoughts

Desserts aren't weak, but they're not nearly as memorable as the other courses. Sliced apples atop tired puff pastry gets a needed boost from the scoop of white-chocolate ice cream. The amaretto chocolate mousse cake drives you significantly short of ecstasy. The almond lemon tort is a worthier effort. You may want to linger with an espresso. Somebody here knows how to make it.

Despite this town's abundance of Italian restaurants, only a handful of places performs at big-time levels. Il Forno belongs in that group.

Piadini, 1656 South Alma School, Mesa, 820-8080. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Piadini occupies the spot last leased by Bssghetti, a budget-priced Italian restaurant that didn't survive long. What makes Piadini's proprietor think his new venture, also a budget-priced Italian enterprise, will fare any better?

East Valley dwellers seem to be slow finding Piadini. On both my off-weekend visits, we didn't have much company. But if the restaurant can be convinced to go with its strengths, locals should have no trouble warming up to it.

It took me a nanosecond to warm up to the grilled polenta appetizer, vigorously paired with portabella mushrooms and Parmesan cheese. But the other starters are disappointing. Grilled eggplant with goat cheese and sun-dried tomato had no flair or flavor. And the woeful antipasto is an outright embarrassment--a few slices of meat, some tasteless cheese, soggy grilled eggplant, olives and no discernible dressing. Where are the peppers, tomatoes, veggies, cheeses, herbs and seasonings that bring a good antipasto to life?

Now that you've saved eight bucks by not ordering the antipasto, you can confidently spend the money on the restaurant's specialty, piadini, flatbread lined with various ingredients, then folded over and sealed (much like calzone). Happily, unlike many of their calzone relatives, the piadini here aren't puffed up principally with empty space: They're stuffed, and you'll be, too, if you eat an entire one yourself.

The well-crafted piadini rustica is packed with juicy white meat sheared off a rotisserie chicken, smoked provolone, broccoli and sun-dried tomatoes. The sandwichlike luna piena is just as impressive, crammed with a terrific assortment of flavorful fillings: smoked salmon, red onion, capers, sun-dried tomato and spinach. It's amazing how good fresh bread stuffed with fresh ingredients can taste.

So how come, even though the place is called Piadini, these are the only two piadini on the menu? If I were running this operation, I'd stay focused on these items--they're what separates Piadini from the low-end Italian-fare pack. Why not create a dozen imaginative piadini and give this place its own niche and distinctive identity?

For some reason, however, management has shied away from the concept, preferring to fill out the rest of the menu with the same pizza/pasta/chicken dishes found at just about every Italian restaurant in town.

They're all serviceable enough, but nothing will get you panting to return. Best is the fettuccine tossed with rotisserie chicken and roasted red peppers, moistened with a tomato-cream sauce. Mild grilled sausage--embellished with huge charred chunks of red and green pepper, onion, fennel and a wedge of polenta--has an appealing rustic charm.

The banal linguini with scallops and portabella mushrooms in pesto sauce isn't nearly as good as it sounds. This platter needs some punching up--the flavors just aren't there. And the pizza is only so-so, too. The toppings are vigorous enough, especially the model coated with prosciutto, sage, Gruyere, mozzarella and green onions. But the pizza dough is too bready for my taste.

Desserts are homemade, and they taste like it. If you follow up the grilled polenta and portabella mushroom appetizer with a piadini, and then finish up with either the creamy cannoli or the rich New York cheesecake, I strongly suspect you'll be making plans for another visit. But if you order differently, that thought may never strike you.

Piadini needs to concentrate on what it does best. Pavarotti shouldn't dance; Julia Roberts shouldn't sing; and Fife Symington shouldn't be processing loans. I'd like to see Piadini live up to its name.

Il Forno:
Frutti di mare
Pappardelle alla Bolognese
Apple tart

Grilled polenta
Piadini rustica
Luna piena
Fettuccine al pollo

« Previous Page
My Voice Nation Help