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Va Bene Ristorante Italiano, 4025 East Chandler Boulevard, Phoenix, 480-706-4070. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, daily, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Va Bene owner Sasha Cosic welcomes us warmly, leading us through small clusters of tables, inviting us to "sit, please, and enjoy." He offers us menus, but as we reach for them, he tightens his grip. We can look them over, he smiles, but we won't really need them, since Va Bene prides itself on its daily specials.
Americans are used to having elaborate dining choices, he explains, still holding strong to the leatherette-bound menus, but it's impossible for any good kitchen to keep so many items fresh. In Italy, he says proudly, people simply ask their waiter for suggestions, ensuring they will get the very best the kitchen has to offer.
4647 E. Chandler Blvd.
Ahwatukee, AZ 85048
The tug of war ends and he leaves us to peruse Va Bene's admittedly simple menu. There are three soups and three salads. Six starters. Ten pasta dishes and eight entrees. There is certainly enough to choose from, but a quick glance reveals that the kitchen isn't taking too many chances on its specialty perishables. The only fresh seafood is a mussel appetizer and a scampi pasta dish. Entrees feature a choice of chicken or veal, and one mixed grill.
For a moment, I'm nervous. I've been interested in sampling this cozy eatery in a strip mall at the edge of Ahwatukee and am so pleased to find it not only surviving, but thriving, in an area glutted by brand-name restaurants. Reassuringly, the place is packed, even at 6:30 on a Tuesday evening, and even as diners must battle maddening construction along Chandler Boulevard and in Va Bene's torn-up shopping-center parking lot.
Yet, looking over the menu now, it's hard to get excited. There's linguini with pesto sauce. Baked eggplant, mozzarella, tomato and Parmesan. Veal Piccata and chicken breast in lemon sauce with asparagus. I've been there, done that, time and time again.
But then our waiter comes bounding up, a cyclone of happy energy in his white button-down shirt, red tie and elegant knee-length black apron. He can't wait to tell us about the evening's specials, because they are just that, he exclaims. Only the freshest fish, he enthuses. Nothing but the finest meats. Everything chosen just for us and our dining pleasure.
I'm suddenly cheerful. If the entrees are half as good as his descriptions, my dining companion and I are in for an enjoyable evening. And, after a few visits, I'm onto Va Bene's game. Several of this eatery's "specials" can be found on a regular basis. It's just that, given that availability of fresh ingredients, Va Bene isn't willing to commit to a printed guarantee that the chef will serve it to you.
Va Bene's soothing decor takes less brainpower to appreciate. Once we navigate past blinking, orange-bonneted sawhorses and Cat 'dozers in the parking lot, we find a single dining room completely split (thank you) from an added-on bar area. It's nicely cosmopolitan, with Dijon mustard-colored walls, high ceilings finished with crown molding and white-cloth-topped tables overlooking a small patio shimmering with white holiday lights. It's dimly lit; so much so that my dining companion remarks that a coal miner's cap would be helpful. But I love the gentle darkness. Even on slower evenings, the room can get noisy, and interestingly, we often can hear our neighbors' conversations better than our own.
Cosic's family runs the kitchen, and Va Bene's dishes have that uneven sparkle of homemade recipes. Bread is crunchy-crusted one evening, squishy on another. It's always boring, more like unsweetened Wonder bread. And surely an elegant operation like this can do better than messy butter pats served in foil. There's simply no way to wrestle the greasy little monsters without suffering butter-slimed fingers.
As a starter, the bread wilts under its Bruschetta toppings ($5), four big chunks that look fine but have an eerie, almost burned character. I like the sweet tomatoes and the garlic that creeps up to whack us on the nose after a few bites. But the bread is rendered much too squishy under its coat of olive oil.
It's best to just skip this plate, and fill up instead on Costa Smeralda ($4.95), a very shareable salad of mixed greens, tomato, chickpeas, boiled egg quarters, Kalamata olives, red onion and tuna. The canned fish is pressed chalky and dry, but revives under sweet virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar dressing. True, the salad is hardly a unique offering, but we nibble away every bite.
Skip, too, the no-flavor Stracciatella ($3.95), a clear chicken broth with egg whites and Parmesan. Yawn. Minestrone alla Genovese ($4.50) is more worthwhile, robust with big hunks of carrot, zucchini, corn, celery and potato but no pasta. Its good herb broth is rich with pesto, but there's not nearly enough of the soothing liquid.
My only real complaint about Va Bene's soups, though? That I don't order the Pasta e Fagioli ($4.95) myself. No, I have to be polite and let it go to my dining companion, who laps lustily from the large bowl of Venetian black beans, lightly pureed and stocked with short pasta. Sprinkled with fresh grated Parmesan, it's wonderfully smooth, dusky, and would be the perfect spooning snack for those times I'm curled up in my fuzzy robe and warm socks.