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By Laura Hahnefeld
Much, much, much more pleasant is a split order of penne alla puttanesca (dinner only). We request the entree "plopped in the middle of the table so we can both pick at it," but receive two generous plated portions. How nice, and how do they do it at just $8.50? Legend says puttanesca is a derivation of puttana (Italian for "whore") because of the sauce's intense siren call. Whatever. I just know I really like this zesty mélange of tomatoes, onions, bountiful capers, black olives, anchovies, oregano and garlic dusted with Pecorino and Parmesan cheeses.
Ninetta's doesn't do specials, either. The only off-menu offering is homemade gnocchi served on Wednesdays. These little potato dumplings are a yummy way to break up the week -- the enormous bowl of soft, pasty nuggets has my dining companion cooing happy sounds. She can't decide between Roberta sauce (tomato, light cream, Parmesan and pesto) or "hearty meat sauce," and asks for a half-and-half dish. Yet Ninetta's can't oblige, our server tells us, because each sauce is made fresh upon ordering, and his aunt will yell at him if he asks. So it's a joyful surprise when my companion receives her Roberta gnocchi, alongside a full portion of meat sauce at -- get this -- no charge. Wow. This in a time when even Arby's charges 40 cents extra for a side of watery au jus.
Ninetta's à la minute cooking means that food comes as it's ready -- my companions are halfway through their meals before mine arrives. We catch on quickly, and by the next visit, I've decreed that dining here will be family style. Entrees are deposited in the center of our table to share, and Raffi, observing our scheme, scampers over with extra plates.
Pasta e fagioli$4.00
Linguini profumo di bosco$10.00
The to-order preparation also means that Ninetta's pasta is almost always perfectly al dente, always hot, and marvelously fresh. Ravioli bolognese is fabulous, a leftovers-guaranteed portion of tender pasta pockets stuffed with finely ground beef and delicate spices. Hearty, chunky meat sauce is perfectly balanced and so delightful that we eat it straight, dunking hefty forkfuls from the side serving that came with my companion's gnocchi. I'm also smitten with linguini profumo di bosco, studded with Tuscany's signature porcini mushrooms, fresh tomato, garlic and lots of fresh Parmesan.
Portions are so large, even at lunch, that when the cannelloni Firenze arrives, my companion, who knows my appreciation of carryout boxes, chirps, "More leftovers! Bonus points!" It's difficult not to finish every bite in one sitting, though, as tasty as the two burrito-size cannelloni are. While I prefer a lighter presentation than the thick filling and ocean of white sauce served here, to find fault would be like saying Ninetta's is giving too much of a good thing. Finely ground beef is blended with the tiniest hint of tomato and Parmesan, covered in buckets of creamy béchamel sauce and baked just so.
The rich milk and butter-flour roux is too heavy for the lasagna Verdi, though, suffocating the delicate spinach pasta. It doesn't help that the noodles are overcooked, struggling as a mushy cloak to the ricotta filling and meat sauce.
Ninetta's doesn't dedicate much menu space to non-pasta dishes, and for good reason. The chicken, pork, veal, shrimp and osso buco served here can be found -- and better prepared -- almost anywhere. Veal scaloppine is three pounded-to-paper-thin cutlets draped with whispers of prosciutto and whole leaf sage in a flat white wine sauce. The best element is the side of penne napoletana (dressed with a smooth, mild tomato sauce).
Petti di pollo alla valdostana bores me, too, promising two full chicken breasts, but delivering, as my companion puts it, just an "A" cup. The bird is dry under a salty coverlet of ham and mozzarella. Osso buco doesn't do it for me, either. Although it's competently braised to tenderness, it's too quiet under its sauce of olive oil, tomato and carrots. The veal shank comes on a huge plate but is anchored mostly by a huge bone (more leftovers for the dog).
And perhaps I've been spoiled by the many excellent tiramisu variations served around town, but I set down my fork after just a few bites of this too-heavy sponge cake that tastes like little else than its dusting of unsweetened cocoa.
No, I'd rather save my three bucks and order another glass of wine instead. That's no typo: Ninetta's indeed prices its Pinot Grigio, Chianti, Merlot and white Zinfandel at this rock-bottom sum. The Placido brands are bargain-bin table wines, but still decent, served in little water glasses filled all the way to the top.
Good bread, great pasta and a nice wine, all at an unbelievably low price -- it's a simple mix that makes me one happy camper. I'll be back to Ninetta's, and maybe I'll even bring my mother.Ninetta's Trattoria, 814 East Union Hills Drive, Phoenix, 623-434-8967. Hours: Lunch, Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, Tuesday through Thursday, 5 to 9 p.m., Friday, 5 to 10 p.m., Saturday, 4 to 10 p.m., Sunday 4 to 9 p.m.