By Kathleen Vanesian
By Eric Schaefer
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Fans of Rancho Pinot Grill will recognize some of the Nonni's entrees. The Kaufmans' signature Nonni's Sunday chicken shows up with an extra bonus: it's a few dollars less than at Rancho. The satisfaction is the same, with tender bird braised in a savory broth of white wine, mushrooms, herbs and onion. Thick, toasted polenta triangles alongside are mesmerizing, crisp edged and softly cheesy.
Just the name of another main dish could get me: Crispy flattened hen. This is Chrysa's version of a traditional Italian dish that grills chicken under a brick -- here the kitchen sears its poultry in a cast-iron skillet with another skillet weighing it down. The result is a beautiful bird with a crisp crust. It lounges on snowy banks of mashed potatoes kissed with olive oil, plus Christmas-green fresh spinach cooked wet and juicy with just enough garlic to give it guts.
Alaskan halibut makes a milder entrance, fine fish partnered by new potatoes, baby artichokes and tart lemon-caper aioli. And ever-present seared rare ahi gets a rustic glow with its bedding of firm cannellini beans, chopped Kalamata olives, tiny fresh tomatoes and basil leaves. The fist-sized chunk of tuna is finished by caps of shaved fennel, red-onion ribbons and olive oil.
4410 N. 40th St.
Phoenix, AZ 85018
Region: East Phoenix
Hours: Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.
Grilled portabella: $7.50
Sicilian sausage: $8.50
Vegetable antipasto: $8
Crispy flattened hen: $18.50
Grilled ahi: $21.00
Warm Italian donuts: $6
Panna cotta: $6
Beef is another attractive option, a hefty filet marinated and swimming in balsamic alongside roasted potato and arugula. Using less balsamic would be a benefit, though -- after a few bites the meat turns too sweet. Cured pork chop makes an honorable showing, but my boneless cut needs more time with the grill. This is he-man food all around, mounded with braised savory cabbage, sturdy chunks of smoked bacon and mustard sauce.
Diners expecting predictable pastas with red or white sauce will be disappointed. The Kaufmans' only nod to the norm is their handmade pappardelle, fashioned of spinach and ladled with a robust, rustic meat sauce. Handmade fettuccine is more elaborate, the thick noodles smothered with pancetta, sweet grilled corn, and salt-licked spinach and fresh fava beans rivaling Sicily's finest. The sauce is lovely and uncomplicated, tasting like a buttery liquor of olive oil and cheese with slips of garlic and scallion.
Desserts are both casual and decadent. A plate of warm Italian donuts sounds more exciting than it is -- they're nice, but the little rounds could use some sugar other than drizzles of honey. Mom's honey pecan square, another Rancho hallmark, needs nothing other than a fork to make it perfect. The confection is gooey rich, topped with vanilla ice cream and slathered with fudge sauce. And panna cotta is pure bliss, the creamy custard served as a pure white orb on a puddle of citrus syrup with fresh raspberries.
Missteps are minor. I've yet to be convinced that mesquite-grilled flatbread deserves appetizer rating. The dish of puffy triangles is boring, with an off-putting sour flavor. And some complimentary bread offering, even breadsticks, would help fill time while we wait for our meals.
Service is still sorting itself out here and there. A waiter presents us with dishes of ice cream, we tell him we didn't order them, but he leaves them anyway. Moments later he changes his mind, retrieves the desserts and offers them to another table. Boxes of leftovers sometimes fail to return from the kitchen. And I'll never understand why waiters tuck their leather check wallets down the back of their pants, even in the most casual eateries.
From the miracle that was Montrachet, New York's Nieporent now owns 16 restaurants in San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Seattle and Boca Raton. His operations are so successful they've attracted celebrity investors like Robert De Niro, Francis Ford Coppola, Mikhail Barishnikov and Robin Williams. The Kaufmans are on their way to such fame. Hopefully for us, though, they'll keep all their successes right here in the Valley.