The Mangia Event

Al Dente's, 14850 North Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard, Scottsdale, 657-9322. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 10 p.m.; Dinner, Sunday, 4 to 9 p.m.

Next year, the census takers will be fanning out around the country, counting heads and gathering information. Now, I don't know what all the Valley numbers will show. But the enumerators won't have to bother asking local folks about their occupations. That's because, according to my latest survey, everyone in town operates an Italian restaurant.

Does the IRS code have a provision that gives Italian-restaurant owners a special tax credit? Has the entire population of Tuscany immigrated to the Valley? Do scientific tests conclusively prove that clam sauce, osso buco and cannoli make you taller, slimmer and smarter? Why else is Italian food so popular here?

The boom, however, is mostly taking place at the high end. Ten-dollar antipasto, twenty-dollar veal piccata and seven-dollar tiramisu are distressingly common. Factor in wine, tax and tip, and an Italian dinner for two can set a couple back a hundred bucks.

So I went on an expedition, trying to scout out tasty Italian fare that doesn't require hitting four out of six PowerBall numbers to pay for it. Mission accomplished: I found two wonderful, family-run places, at opposite ends of the Valley, places that make me wish that I had been born Italian.

There may be a goofier name for an Italian restaurant than Al Dente's, but offhand I can't think of a single one. It sounds like the kind of place that doesn't take its food seriously. Think about it. If you were looking for outstanding Japanese fare, would you go to a restaurant called Terry Yaki's? What kind of meal could you expect at a swanky continental spot called Biff Wellington's? Think you'd find great meat at a steak house called Phil A. Mignon's?

But it turns out that Al Dente's takes its food seriously, very seriously. The restaurant is directed by a husband-and-wife team, Argentine Italians who grew up in New York. Their specialty is pasta, fresh and homemade. They dish out a remarkable combination of quality and value: If you can find better pasta dishes elsewhere, they won't be cheaper; cheaper pasta dishes, meanwhile, won't be better.

The location may be as poorly chosen as the name. Al Dente's operates out of a storefront in a gigantic new shopping complex, on the fringes of Scottsdale settlement at the southeast corner of Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard and Thompson Peak Parkway. Unless you live in the neighborhood, it's a schlep to get there, even from other parts of Scottsdale and the northeast Valley.

There's nothing terribly distinctive about the decor, either. The room is a bit sterile: a few prints on the wall, vertical blinds on the windows, piped-in Italian elevator music. Everything is very casual--don't expect the staff to replace your silverware after any of the courses. Cloth napkins and glass-topped, linen-lined tables are about the only classy touches.

But whatever reservations you may have disappear once the kitchen gets into the pasta act.

Meals start off with a none-too-tempting Italian loaf and flatbread, served with a roasted garlic dip. Maybe the proprietors have our long-term interests at heart: They don't want us to fill up on bread before the pasta arrives.

Appetizers also seem superfluous. Antipasto is well-crafted, and plenty for two--Italian salami, fresh mozzarella, marinated mushrooms, red peppers, artichokes, olives, all doused in a lip-smacking vinaigrette. Fried calamari are fresh and crunchy. But meals come with salad; and that greenery is enough to tamp down any raging hunger pangs without the additional wallet damage.

And now, you're primed for the gorgeous pasta. Fresh pasta is simply an altogether different species from the dried variety. It's richer and heavier, with a silky smooth texture. Few Valley Italian restaurants make their own--it's a labor-intensive pain in the neck. And the ones that do generally make you pay for your thrills. At Al Dente's, however, your thrills can come as cheaply as $9.95.

That's all it costs for the scrumptious ravioli, feather-light pouches stuffed with ricotta and covered with a super-premium pesto, heavy with the scents of olive oil, cheese, basil and garlic. This plate darned near blew me away.

Fettuccine with Italian sausage is another winner that also returns change from a 10. It's a vibrant dish, goosed up with onions and peppers, and smoothed with an understated tomato sauce that doesn't get in the way. If you've never had fresh fettuccine before, this platter will be a revelation. The only drawback: You may never be able to eat fettuccine out of a box again.

The man-size wedge of lasagna della casa (there's also a vegetarian version) doesn't shortchange you on the spinach, ham, cheese and ground beef fillings. It's lightly moistened with two sauces: tomato and cream. Cannelloni is another traditional pasta house favorite that Al Dente's takes to another level. Two delicate crepes, crammed with ricotta and Parmesan cheese, are nothing short of irresistible.

Sorrentini pack an earthy wallop. They're ravioli, filled with smoky ham and mozzarella, swimming in a sea of white-wine-laced mushroom sauce. And if seafood linguini is the evening special, don't hesitate: Sole, marlin, snapper, shrimp and a single black mussel are heaped over wonderful linguini, bound together with a light cream sauce.

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