Mangia Wars

Coco Pazzo, 4720 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 946-9777. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

The old Roman Empire ran out of steam about 1,500 years ago. But it looks like two ambitious restaurant operators want to start up a new one.

One would-be emperor is Pino Luongo. He's already got a far-flung empire of Coco Pazzos in 16 cities across America, including a new outpost in Scottsdale. The other claimant is Maria Ranieri, the force behind Maria's When in Naples, Salute, and now, Rustico, set in the growing northeast Valley.

In Caesar's time, rivals for the throne would mass their forces and meet on the field of battle, where they'd fight to the death. Fortunately, our town's Italian-restaurant appetite is so voracious that present-day combatants don't have to annihilate the competition. There's plenty of business for everybody. In the encounter between Coco Pazzo and Rustico, Coco Pazzo emerges victorious. But both sides in this contest come out bloodied, and need to regroup.

Coco Pazzo (it means "crazy cook") occupies the faux-palazzo site that formerly housed Sfuzzi, whose company Luongo bought out almost two years ago. He's been converting Sfuzzis around the country to Coco Pazzos ever since.

Sfuzzi's decorators favored a design scheme best described as "Peeling Italian Villa." Coco Pazzo's management must have been impressed, because I couldn't detect any changes. The high-ceilinged rooms are separated by columns and arches. Dim fragments of frescoes dot the earth-colored walls, as if recently unearthed. Linen-lined tables are ornamented with today's trendiest design touch, a tuft of sprouting wheat. Piped-in music, meanwhile, disconcertingly alternates between opera, home-country tunes and thumping rock.

With a couple of exceptions, Coco Pazzo's recipe book includes all the usual 1990s Tuscan suspects: pizzas from a wood-burning oven; pastas; veal Milanese; grilled swordfish; tiramisu. What gives these dishes their distinction is not their novelty; it's their high quality. The chef here gets to work with topnotch ingredients, and he knows how to make them sing in harmony.

But while I very much like Coco Pazzo's fare, there's a problem: I don't want to eat it at Coco Pazzo. I'm pretty mellow when it comes to service--restaurant employees are usually trying hard, and, in any event, giving them the benefit of the doubt keeps my blood pressure in check and eases digestion. But Coco Pazzo's staff is strictly amateur hour. And the pretension level makes the ineptitude even harder to cope with. Is anybody training these people?

What can you make of a "captain" in an ill-fitting tux, who introduces himself and then disappears forever? Ours couldn't even be bothered getting us menus or encouraging the busboy to deliver water. "Where's the trout from?" I asked him, inquiring into the evening's special. "I'll find out," he said. Who knows, maybe he did. But he never bothered imparting the information to us.

The waitstaff is equally unsteady. Over the course of two visits, our servers gave us a vivid, how-not-to demonstration of their art: snatching away a half-full breadbasket and not replenishing it; neglecting to replace silverware; forgetting who ordered what; forgetting to bring dishes we ordered; forgetting who got what wine; addressing us as "you guys"; ignoring us to flirt with a group of women diners; and failing to return the credit card with the receipt.

It's too bad, because the fare here is almost always first-rate, and occasionally exceptional.

Home-cured duck prosciutto is a delightful way to edge into dinner. Rich slices of duck are craftily embellished with fennel, walnuts and grapes. It's an irresistible combination of flavors and textures. The high-value, $6.50 antipasto is also very effective. It's stocked with fresh mozzarella drizzled with balsamic vinegar, yellow tomato, marinated eggplant and mushrooms, olives, salami and prosciutto. If there are cheaper antipasto platters in town, they aren't better; if they're better, they aren't cheaper. Mussels, steamed in a garlicky, spicy tomato broth, deliver genuine pleasure. And that pleasure is heightened once you dip in either of the two wonderful breads, a cheese-and-herb-topped focaccia, or the chewy, crusty Italian loaf.

The lone starter setback was a one-dimensional porcini mushroom soup. It tasted more like the means to something else, rather than an end in itself.

Coco Pazzo didn't have to include a freebie salad course with dinner. But I'm glad it decided to. This one's a pleasing mix of greens, beets, tomatoes, white beans, carrot and onion, lightly dressed.

Main dishes are very strong. Grilled beef tenderloin is a standout, one of this town's very best steak plates. The butter-soft meat is lined with a ravishing Chianti glaze, and teamed with lots of lusty wild mushrooms and rssti potatoes, shredded spuds formed into a pancake and skillet-fried. If your taste buds have been napping, this entree will wake them up.

So will the farrotto, a one-of-a-kind dish you won't find elsewhere in Arizona. It's prepared like risotto, except that instead of arborio rice, the chef uses a nutty, crunchy, barleylike grain imported from Italy. It's flavored with different ingredients every night. During one of my visits, it was suffused with artichokes, tomato and pecorino Romano. What a knockout.

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