Vittle Italy

Cafe Terrace, 4151 North Marshall Way, Scottsdale, 480-947-9364. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Dinner, Thursday through Saturday, until 10 p.m. Closed Sunday.

"Ego cogito, ergo sum," wrote philosopher Rene Descartes: "I think, therefore I am." That revelatory insight convinced him of this own reality. From that starting point, he spun out a philosophy that proved the reality of the world around him and, ultimately, the existence of God.

These days I wish I had paid a little more attention in my Philosophy 101 class. That's because visits to two new restaurants have left me profoundly confused about the nature of reality.

Even though their menus are very similar, Cafe Terrace and Buca di Beppo offer such contrasting Italian restaurant experiences that the rational mind can't comprehend them both simultaneously.

Which one is real and genuine? Which one is contrived and distorted? No doubt, Descartes could have worked it out in his head. But since my philosophy posits a culinary purpose to existence--Ego edo, ergo sum--the proof lay in the eating.

Set in the middle of Scottsdale's art gallery district, Cafe Terrace almost gives off urban vibes. That's because if you peer out the windows, you may actually spot real human beings, powered by their own two feet, strolling past on Marshall Way. But if you prefer rusticity, Cafe Terrace can also oblige. Out back, there's an extremely pleasant shaded outdoor patio, whose trellis is overrun with bougainvillea and tiny white lights.

Inside or out, you'll see tables lined with green linen and small votive candles. You'll hear a guitarist, strumming and singing out front. And you'll find an affable, Italian-accented proprietor dishing out flavorful, home-country fare at wallet-friendly prices. What's a low-key, neighborhood Italian place doing in this chic, touristy neighborhood? Who knows? But I bet the neighbors aren't complaining.

The proprietor arrived in town in August 1996, and says he immediately "fell in love with Phoenix." Now that's amore--to my mind, anyone who falls in love with the Valley in August is definitely a few olives short of an antipasto. Thankfully, though, his cooking is a lot sounder than his judgment.

Maybe it helps to have Mama in the kitchen. She spends the good-weather season here, pitching in. (She leaves in May.) For the most part, they work well together.

But initially, you'll need patience and faith, because meals get off to a slow start. The store-bought Italian bread is the first stumbling block. Surely Cafe Terrace can find better bread than these dreary loaves.

The appetizers are also weak. The seafood appetizer, four small shrimp, two out-of-shell mussels and a sprinkling of calamari, lightly dressed by a listless oil and lemon mix, doesn't have any sparkle. Neither does the antipasto, despite the wonderful San Daniele prosciutto. The rest of the platter--salami, olives and mozzarella--could use a veggie boost. And there's absolutely no reason to shell out $5.95 for the caprese, undistinguished tomato slices lined with mozzarella.

Instead, save your funds, and nibble on the snoozy house salad that comes gratis before dinner.

Once the main dishes arrive, however, Cafe Terrace comes on with a rush.
You can count on several homemade pasta specials to put a smile on your face in a hurry. Gnocchi are smothered with a scrumptious meat sauce that tastes like it's been simmering all day in a big pot in Bologna. Meat-filled tortellini, with just the right amount of al dente resistance, come draped with a tomato cream sauce that manages to be both luxurious and delicate at the same time. The contrasting textures of the tortellini and sauce make for Italian yin and yang.

But the spinach ravioli are even better. These airy pouches are so feathery you'll wonder why they just don't float off the plate. And the kitchen knows that all they require is a light butter and sage sauce to achieve perfection.

Other noodle dishes employ dried pasta. But the two I sampled--one made with spaghetti, the other with penne--are good enough to stack up against the gnocchi, tortellini and ravioli.

Spaghetti alla carbonara features a sauce put together with eggs, pancetta, cream, parsley and onions. Sometimes, carbonara can be so achingly rich that the flavor gets lost. But this version gets the ratio exactly right.

Penne benefits from the Sicilian treatment. No, it doesn't come with a horse's head or packet of dead fish. It comes tossed with a ravishing mix of cream, pine nuts, raisins, sauteed broccoli and hints of anchovy. And like all the other pasta dishes, there's enough of it on the plate to handle an ethnic appetite.

Along with pasta, Cafe Terrace offers a small entree list: four veal dishes, two chicken and one fish. The fish is exceptional--tuna in a Sicilian-style sweet-and-sour sauce heaped with a mound of onions. I haven't tasted tuna prepared this way anywhere else in the Valley. If you're skittish about trying this preparation, the $10.95 tag helps make the risk easier to swallow.

First-rate saltimbocca alla Romana is a more familiar platter--veal medallions layered with ham and seasoned with sage, in a robust sauce. Chicken cacciatora isn't quite as successful, browned pieces of white meat, simmered with a thimbleful of capers, mushrooms and olives in a sauce that could have benefited from a few more herbs and a splash of wine.

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