Good & Polenta

Right now, Veneto Trattoria is the kind of Italian restaurant we didn't know the Valley was missing, until it showed us what we were missing. It looks poised for a long, prosperous run.

Cafe Nikos, 3360 North Hayden, Scottsdale, 423-8977. Hours: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 9 a.m. to midnight.

Like saguaros, Camelback Mountain and red-tile roofs, Nick Ligidakis seems to be a permanent part of our desert landscape. He's now on his sixth Valley restaurant, once again whipping up the one-of-a-kind, Italian-Greek specialties that have brought him notoriety ever since he first set up operations in a McDowell Road storefront almost 15 years ago.

At Cafe Nikos, the dishes haven't changed much since those early days, and neither has the chef's attitude toward them. The Soup Nazi could take lessons from Nick: "NO SUBSTITUTIONS TO OUR RECIPES," says the menu in capital letters. When you eat here, it's either Nick's way or the highway. I can deal with that: For the most part, Nick's way is perfectly fine with me.

This is probably the most charming of Nick's many restaurant incarnations. It's a small, cozy room, tucked away in a hard-to-find shopping-center storefront. The dozen or so tables are set with white-linen cloth. Display cases show off the huge dessert selection. One wall is lined with rows of coffee and tea in glass bottles. And you can watch Nick at work in the open kitchen.

Nick hasn't spent his most recent downtime rethinking his culinary philosophy. It's always been, "More is good, and lots more is even better." Cafe Nikos keeps up the belt-loosening tradition.

A single appetizer should take care of several appetites. Don't order the feta dill fritters unless there are at least three of you. That's because you get three big, deep-fried croquettes, tastily stuffed with spinach, pine nuts and ground lamb, with a yogurt dipping sauce. The same goes for the pepperoni formaggi, another take on the croquette theme. They're deep-fried balls filled with pepperoni, roasted peppers and mozzarella. Spanakorizo, meanwhile, brings five deep-fried fritters crammed with dill-accented spinach, rice and cheese. Let's see, is anyone starting to detect an appetizer pattern?

One reason appetizers may be superfluous is that dinners come with a bowl (not cup) of soup or a big salad, along with homemade focaccia. The two soups we tried, a potato spinach Parmesan and meat-flecked black bean, were topnotch, rich, hearty and filling. The greenery is also well-crafted, especially if you coat it with the house feta dressing.

Nick's fans will be pleased to learn that his over-the-top entrees are basically unchanged. That means you'll have about as much chance finding subtlety in a Nick Ligidakis main dish as you will finding a well-thumbed copy of the The Communist Manifesto on Governor Hull's nightstand.

Take the garlicky Salonika chicken, a breast adorned with sausage, mushroom and pepperoncini, tossed with capers and pine nuts, loaded with an orange brandy sauce and served over pasta. Somehow, it all works. So does veal Skordato, another wild creation: veal stuffed with ham, breaded with almonds and walnuts, then bathed in a creamy provolone sauce. Shrimp Athena also doesn't stint on the Mediterranean touches: You get the full impact of olive oil, lemon, garlic, tomato and herbs in this platter.

Sometimes, though, more is not better. There was so much cheese on the lobster manicotti special that the lobster taste got overwhelmed. And sometimes Nick is so busy adding seasoning harmony that he loses sight of the melody. That's the case with the Sundried Sea Bass, a platter whose centerpiece is a too-ordinary piece of fish. That's true, too, for the linguine pesce, an otherwise compelling effort that relies too heavily on those horrid, thumbnail-size shrimp for effect.

When it comes to dessert, Nick continues to believe that nothing succeeds like excess. Perhaps the only way to face his heart-stoppingly rich and massive sweets is with Nietzschean resolve: Whatever doesn't kill me, I told myself, makes me stronger.

I survived the peanut butter cheesecake. I survived the chocolate truffle cheesecake. I survived the Lady Killer, a confection that employs blackberry mousse, white chocolate, peanuts, banana and lady fingers. And, for the moment, I've somehow survived the Fatal Addiction, a near-death blend of white and dark chocolate, hazelnut chocolate, chestnut puree and Kahlua. Try to knock off any these desserts single-handedly, and you'd better come with a cell phone, with the "9" and the "1" already punched in.

Will the sixth time be a charm? Who knows? Nick already has had almost as many lives as Shirley MacLaine. For his fans' sake (and I'm one of them), let's hope Cafe Nikos ends the cycle.

Veneto Trattoria:
Baccala mantecato
$5.75
Risotto
12.50
Roasted duck breast
16.50
Semifreddo
4.75

Cafe Nikos:
Feta dill fritters
$8.25
Salonika chicken
14.95
Veal Skordato
16.95
Fatal Addiction
5.

50

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