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.

My only pasta complaint: It's what isn't on the menu. I wish the kitchen would consider adding a simple dish of pasta drizzled with some good olive oil, a bit of basil and a tablespoon of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. My heart starts racing at just the thought of it.

Of course, you could order something other than pasta here, like chicken parmigiana, veal marsala or salmon sauteed with lemon and butter. I just can't imagine why you'd want to.

Homemade desserts are almost as much of a knockout as the pasta. The "special" tiramisu really is--a formidable hunk of cream-laden ladyfingers soaked with port and drizzled with a coating of warm Belgian chocolate. I'll bet most plates are returned to the kitchen looking like ours--with every last crumb scraped off. Cannoli, filled to bursting with sweetened ricotta and flecked with pistachios, are also first-rate.

The wine list features several bargain-priced Argentine wines. But I was struck by the presence of a Cháteau Lafite-Rothschild priced at $260, and a La Mission Haut-Brion at $160.

What's the story? It seems that a retired CEO eats here frequently and wants great high-end wine to accompany his pasta.

Give that man credit. When it comes to both wine and pasta, he's clearly got big-time taste.

La Vigna Ristorante, 3539 West Bell, Phoenix, 978-5507. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Tuesday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 9 p.m.

We'll probably have to wait until the year 2999 to see fresh fettuccine on the west side. But in the meantime, folks who live along the avenues aren't entirely out of luck in their search for good-quality, high-value Italian fare. That's because now there's La Vigna.

Open since last spring, La Vigna is a delightful mom-pop-daughter operation. The patriarch hails from Ischia, an island off Naples, and he ran Italian restaurants in New York. But you don't need me to tell you his culinary origins. This food shouts out "Big Apple Italian."

The place looks like it was transported out of a Queens or Brooklyn neighborhood. Inspect the vintage family photos. Listen to the piped-in Sinatra, opera and home-country tunes. Sit in the gazebo area, at linen-lined tables. And mangia.

Start off with a nifty antipasto, a plenty-for-three platter of salami, anchovies, hard-boiled egg, pickled cauliflower, artichokes, cheese and peppers. The Ischia salad is just as impressive, tomato topped with fresh mozzarella, embellished with anchovies and red pepper, all freshened with a basil-tinged vinaigrette. I couldn't get too worked up, however, over the mussels marinara, which could have used more seasoning oomph.

The obligatory dinner salad is forgettable. But most of the entrees aren't.
You'll have no trouble remembering the ripping fettuccine carbonara. If you're very quiet, you can practically hear your arteries hardening from the high-octane cream and cheese sauce, brightened with bits of pancetta. The lasagna is also praiseworthy--the cook goes light on the sauce so you can taste the cheese and meat. Meanwhile, the slab of eggplant parmigiana tastes like it just flew in from the old neighborhood. "We peel the eggplant," says the proprietor, "so there's no bitter skin. That's why it's so sweet." Whatever he's doing, he's doing it right.

The kitchen also puts together appealing veal, chicken and seafood entrees, almost all in the $12 to $15 range.

It's a range easy to be at home on, especially if you order the shrimp and scungilli Fra Diavolo. The crustaceans are big and meaty; the scungilli (conch) is surprisingly tender; the sauce has just the right peppery bite; and everything's tossed over pasta. Bracciola is another winning option, beef lined with prosciutto, then stuffed with sausage and cheese and rolled up. Veal piccata features four thin medallions, heaped with capers and invigorated by a wine and lemon sauce. And a lusty sauce boosted by mushrooms and sherry keeps chicken marsala from its usual dullness.

The one lackluster dish: linguini alla vodka, done in by weak sausage and too light a hand with the garlic and spices.

The homemade desserts are a highlight. Cannoli are whoppingly rich, studded with chocolate chips and gilded with fresh cream. The moist ricotta cheesecake is simply a marvel. And tiramisu is exceptionally creamy and intense.

La Vigna can't turn the west side into the old neighborhood all by itself. But it's a good start.

Al Dente's:
Cannelloni di ricotta
$11.95
Tiramisu
6.50

La Vigna Ristorante:
Antipasto
$6.50
Shrimp and scungilli Fra Diavolo
14.

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