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The same evening delivers a stunning antipasto platter, layered with mounds of prosciutto, mozzarella and tomatoes. Imported Italian ham comes in crepe-thin sheets, salty and mildly marbled on its edges, then splayed with rounds of pleasantly rubbery cheese and juicy fruit. In the center the field greens are moistened with a light balsamic vinaigrette over a gentle dusting of rock salt.
Given the greens, I ask our waitress to substitute caesar salad for the house salad that comes with dinners. And though she's literally running from table to table on this hectic night, she's happy to oblige (additional cost, natch), even splitting the full-size order in the kitchen for my companion and me. The romaine has been lovingly selected, with crisp leaves in a blissfully delicate dressing with dainty croutons and flurries of shaved Parmesan.
I'm pushing my luck, and ask for a special sauce on the pasta that comes with my chicken Parmigiana. Again, no problem, she smiles. And from the battlefield that is the kitchen, the dish comes out perfect. Lightly breaded breast releases golden juices when cut, and swims under a rich topping of bubbly mozzarella and zesty marinara. A side of penne is anointed as requested in a lovely Arrabiata sauce, thick with chopped tomatoes, basil, olive oil and fiery hot red pepper, which is key to this particular sauce.
10401 N. McDowell Mountain Ranch
Scottsdale, AZ 85255
Region: North Scottsdale
Spaghetti and meatballs: $9.95
Penne with sausage: $11.95
Chicken Parmigiana: $13.95
Spinach ravioli: $13.95
Hours: Lunch, Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner, 4 to 10 p.m. daily.
Scirpo's marinara is robust, also thick with tomato and pepper. The piquant blend sparkles on spaghetti, crowning already topnotch meatballs. It finishes the gently bitter eggplant Parmigiana, and binds thickly layered lasagna. And it adds soupy satisfaction to penne with Italian sausage, the fat link crisp-cased, crumbly and bursting with fresh herbs.
Another evening finds the restaurant playing to a room perhaps a third full -- and the kitchen's energy matches it. Dinner tonight is pleasant, if not remarkable. Focaccia topped with artichokes and fontina is a fine appetizer. A starter of roasted bell peppers is unexciting but inoffensive, the strips adorned with extra virgin olive oil and garlic.
But entrees fail to rise above the ordinary during this evening -- veal Marsala is the same as almost any other place in town, presenting two thinly pounded cutlets ladled in mushroom-and-wine gravy, situated over sliced tomato, zucchini, squash and purple onion. A bed of orzo is actually two matchbox-size squares of pressed, moist grains that make me think of plump pilaf.
Salmon isn't as ordered -- the menu regular of pan-seared fish capped with spinach in a Parmesan cup, with port honey reduction sauce. It shows up instead as that night's special, prepared teriyaki style. Either way, it's a tiny parceling of flaky fish, nondescript under its sweet Asian glaze and paired with slivers of zucchini and squash plus nicely creamy au gratins.
When Caffe Portobello is almost empty, the spirit evaporates from the kitchen like boiling water on a hot stove. On this evening, execution is indifferent and lifeless, with food approaching dismal. An appetizer of calamari sautéed in butter, olive oil and garlic is so off-flavored and fishy tasting that we send it back. The waitress returns, informing us that the chef "says it looks and smells fine" (though apparently he refrains from tasting it) but does offer to remove it from the bill.
What should be a signature starter for a restaurant called Caffe Portobello arrives flawed, the portabella mushroom too soft and marinated in too much balsamic. Partners of cremini mushrooms and corn-bread textured roasted garlic polenta are worthy, but a "chef's house sauce" of rosa (white and red blended) doesn't belong in this dish at all.
Fettuccine Alfredo is truly dull, with a lackluster creamy sauce capped by a choice of chicken breast or vegetables. Spinach ravioli comes to the table inexplicably dotted with errant bits of spaghetti noodles, the pale-green pillows stuffed with lots of good ricotta, but overcooked until tough. A meatball alongside is salty and a topping of rosa sauce is even saltier, to the point of being inedible.
A closer of tiramisu shuts it all down. There's nothing wrong with the taste of this dessert, except it's really just overpriced cake, humiliated under drifts of whipped cream and drizzles of chocolate syrup.
Real passion feeds off energy, and when this kitchen is cranking, I can feel the love. Without it, however, there's no point feeding ourselves at Caffe Portobello.