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I don't have a clue what kind of dinnerware holds Acqua e Sale's soups and salads, though. Nothing can distract me from an outright voluptuous stracciatella, a rich chicken broth bursting with fresh spinach and loads of pillowy egg white -- a local farmer tends a flock of chickens simply to supply the eggs for this soup, I'm told. The Valley's One Windmill Farm is responsible for the gracious produce in the salads, too, tendering the ravishing Belgian endive in the Gorgonzola and caramelized walnut salad painted with homemade honey Dijon vinaigrette.
Verde e bianca is another stunner, lacing crystal-crisp Bibb lettuce with thin asparagus stalks, chubby wands of palm heart and bitter grapefruit chunks. The millennium magic of this dish comes from what it doesn't have -- thick, Americanized dressing. A light varnish of extra virgin olive oil is all that's needed. This puritan touch, ironically, is what makes another simple dinner salad an acceptable deal for $6.95. Don't begrudge the cost until you've sampled Acqua e Sale's della campagna, a minimalist marvel of field greens and organic tomatoes tossed in olive oil and squeezed with fresh lemon. So many modern Italian eateries would douse the salad in that condiment of the moment, balsamic vinegar, completely obscuring any other flavor.
While Malventano has updated his menu, he's wisely held on to a few traditional favorites, including veal lasagna, ravioli del giorno (bursting with Maryland crab and drizzled with more of that truffle oil) and capellini con pomodorino freschi (angel hair pasta in a tomato, basil, garlic and olive oil sauce). Again, price tags nudging $20 won't seem so frightening after you've tasted your meal. Spaghetti alla vongole, for example, shows why something straightforward, when done professionally, can be so successful: It's a deep bowl, decorated with smiling, hand-painted fish, full of perfect pasta, juicy Manila clams and white wine sauce. Taglioline al limone con capesante, new to the menu, leaves nothing more to be desired, featuring four delicate diver scallops over egg pasta with butter lemon sauce.
Taglioline al limone con capesante: $23.95
Osso buco: $24.95
Pollo alla valdostana: $20.95
Tarte di mele: $6.00
602-952-1522. Hours: Dinner, daily, 5 to 10 p.m.
One caveat -- pasta portions here aren't the overindulgent masses you'll find at other Italian restaurants such as, say, Il Fornaio. You get what you get -- a comfortable tangle of noodles and toppings, and nothing else. For more "stuff," stick to the fish, poultry and meat entrees. Osso buco won't leave any diners hungry, not with the thick hunk of center-cut veal shank over a mound of fettuccine. After the last bite of tender braised calf has been consumed, scoop out the succulent bone marrow and dip your bread in the deep brown vegetable sauce.
Pollo alla valdostana is another new character on the fall menu; chicken breast is rolled with imported San Daniele prosciutto and fontina cheese, then coated with a light mushroom sauce. The poultry oozes blond cheese as it's sliced, puddling into sides of wild mushrooms and chunky mashed sweet potatoes.
Would I prefer a side of pasta instead of sweet potatoes? I can have it, our server tells me -- in fact, diners at Acqua e Sale can have virtually anything they want, as long as the kitchen can produce it, he says. I test the theory one evening, ordering my sea bass Genovese style, rich with butter and wine and partnered with red potatoes, artichoke hearts and terrific fennel au gratin. It's good, but not up to the level of the restaurant's regular Mediterranean presentation. Wet, mild sea bass does better with a gutsy one-two punch of simmered tomatoes, sweet roasted peppers, capers and Kalamata olives.
The artwork topping the dessert menu is a gothic-looking creature that appears to be half man, half dragon. He's holding a cake, and sports additional faces on his scaly back and at the tip of his curved tail. No wonder -- dessert is where the over-the-top presentations surface, and any additional mouths come in handy. A slab of tiramisu is as large as a lasagna entree. White chocolate tartufo (Italian ice cream) comes in a big silver goblet under a crush of white chocolate chunks. Tarte di mele is a satisfying slice of fresh apples and pastry decorated with a scoop ($3 extra) of Grand Marnier ice cream.
Dessert is also the only time a true flaw surfaces -- profiteroles are more mushy Ding Dongs than delicate puff pastry, lined with scant chantilly cream and coated in too much flat-flavored chocolate mousse.
Hey, everyone's entitled to one mistake. Just like those poor folks who, after calling Acqua e Sale by mistake, decided to go to Il Fornaio instead.