The Marinara Has Two Faces

Two dishes turned up the flavor profile a notch. I could actually taste the wine in the veal marsala. But the lazy accompaniment of underseasoned zucchini didn't show much kitchen creativity or effort. Only one entree, a special of fresh pappardelle pasta, darkened with squid ink and tossed with a full-bodied Bolognese sauce, came close to what I expected from Tal's.

The desserts sure don't. Most are made elsewhere, and if the sugar-packed chocolate cake is any guide, that's where they ought to stay. The house-made tiramisu is commendably rich, but it's way too little, and way too late.

Tal's has the right concept. But you can't eat ideas. And right now, Tal's ideas can't make it successfully onto a plate.

Boot camp: Chef Tal Farhi displays Italian garlic breadth at Tal's in north Scottsdale.
Lokey
Boot camp: Chef Tal Farhi displays Italian garlic breadth at Tal's in north Scottsdale.

Details

Eggplant rollatini

$8.00

Chicken moussaka

14.00

Veal marsala

16.00

Tiramisu

5.00

Molise Cucina Italiana:

Escargot ravioli

$7.25

Crespelle alla fiorentina

10.50

Crème brûlée

3.95

Molise Cucina Italiana, 2515 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 480-4235801. Hours: Dinner, Tuesday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 4:30 to 9 p.m.

Homey and relaxed, Molise is the picture of the friendly neighborhood restaurant sprung to life. The mom-and-pop proprietors haven't spent their four years in this shopping-strip storefront reconceptualizing Italian gastronomy. Instead, the kitchen focuses on getting familiar dishes right. And that sort of familiarity will never breed contempt.

The large, airy room is set off with good-looking old furniture. An antique breakfront, heavy and ornate, and a huge wood armoire, loaded with wine bottles, suggest you're dining in someone's home. So does the cheery, eager-to-please staff. And so does the music system -- you never know what's going to come out of it. We heard everything from Sinatra to the Gipsy Kings singing in Spanish.

Meals get off on the right foot, with homemade bread. And, after you order the escargot ravioli appetizer, you'll want to keep the loaf nearby. The four homemade pouches, filled with plump snails, are drenched in a smashing, tarragon-accented Pernod sauce that's so addicting it ought to be labeled a controlled substance.

Two other starters don't reach the ravioli heights. The antipasto is pretty spartan, slices of prosciutto, salami and provolone cheese. The only excitement on this plate comes from two olives, each perched on an anchovy. The dull roasted peppers, meanwhile, make the antipasto seem creative. But it's not the lack of flair that bothered me as much as their flabby taste. These peppers had no Italian oomph.

Entrees come with soup or salad. Forget the calendar and opt for the soups. Both the chicken soup and lentil soup taste like someone stood over a pot, watching them. The salad, in contrast, gives the impression that no one cared about this dull greenery at all.

The energetic main dishes could turn first-time diners into regulars, even if they don't live in the neighborhood. Two pasta dishes shine. The crespelle alla fiorentina is especially compelling: two light, homemade crepes, filled with ricotta and spinach, topped with cream sauce and a dollop of marinara. I'm still smacking my lips. Gnocchi are also deftly fashioned. Maybe these potato flour dumplings aren't quite as feathery light as some high-end models. But nobody will complain about the hard-hitting flavors in their creamy tomato sauce.

If you're from the meat-and-fish school, Molise also gets decent marks. One evening's halibut special turned out to be special, indeed. It was broiled exactly right, to the second, a moist, flaky slab of piscatory perfection. Then it got a boost from a sprinkling of capers and an aromatic lemon-wine sauce. Believe me, I'd come here just for the halibut. I'd also come for the saltimbocca, three thin veal medallions layered with prosciutto, sage and mozzarella. But I'd think twice about rushing back for the seafood linguini, whose otherwise wonderful shellfish medley was marred by some not-ready-for-prime-time scallops.

Molise makes eggplant parmigiana the way it ought to be. The eggplant is cooked through, without turning pulpy or oily. Then, it's topped by a flavorful cheese -- Gruyère, maybe? -- and a summery sauce that smelled like a Mediterranean breeze.

The kitchen's single, small half-step beyond the traditional Italian favorites is also a success. That's the polenta con salsiccia, a hearty, rustic platter of cornmeal tossed with sausage.

The one jarring note here: the grated cheese. For some reason, servers use a daffy, whirring device that looks and sounds like the offspring of a Salad Shooter mated to a hair dryer. The low-quality cheese that comes out of it doesn't help, either.

A couple of desserts get dinner back on track. The rich, fruit-studded crème brûlée is a crowd-pleaser. The homemade ricotta cheesecake, gilded with sweet cream, is worth the calories. But the cannoli don't have the sweet ricotta intensity they ought to.

Molise may be low on concept, but for the most part, it's high on execution. I'd say it has its priorities straight.

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