Good & Polenta

Veneto Trattoria, Hilton Village, 6137 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 948-9928. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.

These are golden days for the Valley's Italian-food fans. Judging by the exploding number of Italian restaurants in town, apparently 90 percent of the eating-out population wants to dine in an Italian restaurant every night. The other 10 percent? They're busy running Italian restaurants.

So what's new? The utterly delightful Veneto Trattoria, serving outstanding Venetian and northern-Italian specialties. What's old? The umpteenth reincarnation of Nick Ligidakis, this time as director of operations at Cafe Nikos.

Housed in the old Vagara Bistro storefront in Hilton Village, Veneto Trattoria has been getting great word of mouth since it opened about six months ago. I have no hesitation confirming its exceptional charms in print.

What makes Veneto Trattoria special? As you might expect, the food is terrific. But this place is more than food, it's the total restaurant package. It's hard to imagine eating here and not having a wonderful time.

First, the setting. It's a casual place, more osteria than trattoria, a bustling, big-city neighborhood spot that caters to locals. There are no linen tablecloths on the wooden tables, no fancy design elements and no pretension. Italian masks brought back from the old country by the husband-and-wife proprietors are mounted on the wall. So are pictures of Venice. Opera arias are piped in, but the happy sounds of so many people enjoying themselves make the music hard to hear.

Second, the service. This is the kind of place where the staff remembers you. On a repeat visit, the wife/hostess remembered our (phony) name, where we'd sat and what we'd ordered. The servers are knowledgeable and professional.

Third, the prices. For Scottsdale, they're very reasonable, with entrees ranging from $8.50 to $17.50. And when's the last time you saw restaurant espresso for $1.75 anywhere north of Camelback and east of 24th Street? You won't leave here thinking you hadn't gotten your money's worth.

But setting, service and value wouldn't mean much if the kitchen also didn't shine. I was told the Venetian chef worked at a Michelin-starred restaurant back home before he was lured here. I believe it.

Veneto Trattoria's menu offers dishes you can find anyplace there's red-checked oilcloth, Chianti in wicker baskets and canned accordion music: veal scaloppine; grilled sea bass; spaghetti with seafood; chicken in a red wine sauce. But the chef's heart is clearly in the regional Venetian specialties, which are starred on the menu. You won't find dishes like these elsewhere, and they're what make this place stand out from the Italian-restaurant crowd.

Baccala mantecato is the first piece of evidence. It's dried, salt-cured cod, marinated in milk and pureed into a mousse, served over wedges of polenta and teamed with greens and red onion. There's nothing timid about this mix of flavors. Calamari is also first-rate, floating in a spoon-lickin' tomato sauce.

We turned gnocchi into a shared first course, with no regrets. That's because the light, potato-flour dumplings were coated with a heavenly meat sauce that sang with the flavors of Italy. If you're not into sharing, get yourself a bowl of the hearty 12-bean and barley soup and don't let anyone else use your spoon.

The main dishes sparkle. Risotto with pumpkin and wild mushrooms packs a powerful punch, especially once your server grates Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese over it. Roasted duck breast is especially ravishing, the meat fanned across the plate and spruced up with bits of duck liver and smoked pork, creating a harmony of rich, salty, smoky flavors. Excellent mashed potatoes and properly cooked mixed veggies--not so al dente that you need a pick ax to cut them--furnish good support.

If you're turned on by liver, you'll have to be hosed down after Veneto Trattoria's fegato alla Veneziana arrives. It's a big portion of thin-sliced liver, done up with olive oil in traditional Venetian fashion, and paired with polenta and onions in a thick, fragrant gravy. Even the liver-shy in our group were impressed.

For simple, rustic charm, you can't beat luganega, pork garlic sausages. You also can't beat the price--an eye-rubbing $8.50. That sum gets you two plump, juicy sausages, accompanied by wedges of grilled polenta and braised Savoy cabbage. The same compelling rusticity also invigorated one evening's special, bollito di manzo. It was three slices of boiled beef, teamed with a trio of sauces, including a riveting apple horseradish.

You can order non-Venetian entrees with confidence, too, if the salmon is any guide. It's a grilled fillet, boosted by an aromatic olive puree and adorned with cherry tomatoes.

The kitchen is just as skilled with dessert as it is with everything else. Just thinking about the semifreddo makes me want to go back for more. It's semifrozen meringue studded with dried fruit and pine nuts, drizzled with chocolate sauce and surrounded by a puddle of raspberry coulis. Yum. The marzipan apple tart, gilded with vanilla ice cream and apricot sauce, is also a winner. The chocolate hazelnut cake, a somewhat more pedestrian effort, suffers in comparison.

Let's hope success doesn't tempt the proprietors to change the restaurant's formula. Please: Keep prices sane; don't throw white linen on the tables; don't try to please everybody by adding wood-fired pizza or veal Parmesan to the menu; don't move to larger quarters; and don't lose the neighborhood feel.

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