The Marinara Has Two Faces

Tal's, 13610 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 480-348-0086. Hours: Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 5:30 to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.; closed Sunday.

When is disappointment the keenest? The moment you realize your wildest dreams will never come true? No. People get on with their lives even though they'll never play center field for the Yankees, win the Nobel Peace Prize or look like a movie star.

The sharpest sense of disappointment occurs when things you expect to go well, don't: When the term paper you slaved over comes back with a "C"; when your new car breaks down; when a relationship starts to sour.

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

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Like our disappointments, our joys are most intense when they're unexpected. Matching four numbers on a lottery ticket, finding a parking spot next to Nordstrom the day after Thanksgiving and getting a warning instead of a ticket from a cop give us pleasure disproportionate to any actual benefit.

I've had my share of Italian restaurant disappointment and joy this week. I had enormous hopes for Tal's, which, in theory, promised to press all my hot buttons. Nothing about Molise Cucina Italiana, meanwhile, suggested that it was in any way distinguishable from its scores of competitors.

What got me in an anticipatory lather about Tal's, ever since it opened last March? Just about everything. The Israeli-born, New York-raised chef/proprietor is no novice -- he's worked at Un-Bacio and runs a catering business. The appealing menu features what he calls "Meditalian" fare. I was mentally inhaling the scents of olive oil, oregano, basil, capers and lemon long before I got there. An ad I saw played up the "great ambience." The wallet-friendly BYOB policy added another level of potential charm. In short, I imagined an evening of wonderful food, in a nice setting at a reasonable price.

Two out of three, the cliché says, ain't bad. And usually, that's the case. But not at Tal's. That's because, unfortunately, the "wonderful food" part of the equation falls seriously short.

Set in one of those generic shopping centers that Valley developers specialize in, Tal's looks a lot better from the inside. It's narrow, with the kitchen set along one side of the room, and tables running along the other. The tables are set with thick white linen and vases of carnations. Dark-wood wainscoting lines the walls, which are hung with a mix of pictures: Italian countryside, abstracts and a scene from The Phantom of the Opera. Tony Bennett croons over the music system.

This is the kind of place that I'm genetically programmed to love: a small, casual, slightly up-market BYOB, run by an experienced chef. But for the most part, the food is either not very interesting or not very good. Sometimes, it's both.

The first bad sign? It's the third-rate, over-the-hill bread. It's not hard to find good, fresh bread these days. Why isn't Tal's sweating this detail?

One of the few good signs? It's the freebie plate of garlicky hummus, sprinkled with olive oil.

Although the appetizers hail from the Mediterranean, something seems to have been lost on their journey to the Valley. Spanakopita is nothing to sing about, a spinach-stuffed pastry square that lacked the delicacy and flavor of the best models. On our server's recommendation, we ordered the eggplant rollatini. Maybe I misheard -- perhaps he meant to warn us. He should have. The undercooked eggplant was as tough as leather, and the indifferent cheese and sauce layered on didn't make it any more palatable. Only the rice-stuffed grape leaves, freshened with a bit of lemon, reached anywhere near the level Tal's ought to aspire to.

Salads are another pre-entree option. The two we sampled didn't display much vigor, Mediterranean or otherwise. The Israeli salad brings a mix of tomatoes, onions and pickles, drizzled with lemon juice and olive oil. The spinach salad comes with greenery, tomato and onion tossed in a lemon balsamic vinaigrette.

The main dishes don't mount much of a flavor assault, either. I had great hopes for the chicken moussaka. In my mind's eye, I pictured poultry, eggplant and cheese, infused with Mediterranean spices and moistened with a bubbling béchamel sauce. I'm going to have to get my mind's eye checked, because Tal's dispiriting dish didn't come close. Instead, it featured a charmless chicken breast topped with a forgettable bit of spinach, eggplant, tomato and cheese.

That same lack of energy afflicts the Sunset Shrimp linguini. Perhaps it's so named because you'll feel like going to sleep while it's still in front of you. This insipid seafood-pasta combination, coated with an oddly sweet tomato sauce, won't give anyone $15 worth of pleasure, except the proprietor's accountant.

Two brochette plates also deserve skewering. I usually don't think much of chicken, but occasionally I run across a chicken kebab so juicy and flavorful that I'm tempted to change my mind. Tal's dry, tasteless model, however, isn't one of them. I wasn't impressed with a brochette special, either, an unremarkable mix of halibut, salmon and beef. Compounding our displeasure was the side: roasted potatoes. These skewers cry out for rice, not potatoes. When we asked, we were told that the kitchen had run out of rice. Run out of rice at 7:30 on a Saturday night? Is this any way to run a restaurant?

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.

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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