Dinner and a movie should be a no-brainer, but logistically, it's not always as simple as it should be.

Sometimes it takes some strategizing to get in, get fed, and get to the theater on time — especially when you're seeing the hottest new film. And despite your best efforts, it may take only a nonchalant server or a particularly busy dining room to screw up your plans.

But who wants to stress about it? I sure don't.

Jackie Mercandetti

Location Info

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Cafepino

7000 E. Mayo Blvd.
Phoenix, AZ 85054

Category: Restaurant > Pizza

Region: North Phoenix

Details

Sicilian pizza: $10.95
French dip: $12.95
Tiramisu: $6.95
580-513-PINO (7466), »web link.
Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Cafepino, 7000 East Mayo Boulevard

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That's why I think the folks at Cafepino, handily located right in front of the Cine Capri, are running a really smart operation. They've figured out how to balance efficiency with a classy, upscale vibe. In other words, they don't rush you, but they move you along at just the right pace to enjoy a full meal and still catch a flick. The service here is outstanding for what's basically a fast-casual pizzeria, and the food itself is both nicely prepared and reasonably priced. Almost nothing is over $14.

Cine Capri, a film buff's destination for its enormous screen, digital sound, and stadium seating, is the signature auditorium at the Scottsdale 101 Harkins Theatres complex. Located on the Phoenix side of north Scottsdale Road, it's just off Loop 101.

"We could not find a better location," raves Gabriel Coscas, who co-owns 10-month-old Cafepino with Paco Belassen. They chose the bright, airy spot for the theater traffic it gets, although they're working on building a regular clientele that goes beyond movie audiences.

Certainly the space has had a revolving door the past few years, most recently housing Café Carumba, and before that, Frankie's Little Italy.

And for now, in this economy, Cafepino's business is still largely dependent on the nearby box office.

"We hope to have good movies," Coscas says, laughing.

Cinema aside, I could see this being a neighborhood favorite, a solid option for the northeast Valley. In addition, Costas says, they are talking about opening two, or possibly three more Phoenix locations.

Right now, Cafepino is one of a kind in the U.S., but it has a 50-year history in Europe, under the name Pizzapino. Relatives of Belassen, who immigrated to France from Tunisia, opened the original Pizzapino in Paris in 1958. Now there are Pizzapino locations throughout the City of Lights, and in Spain as well.

According to Coscas, he and Belassen adjusted the concept to fit the Phoenix location ("We call this 'gourmet casual,'" he says). You order at the counter and they'll bring it to your table, although servers continue to wait on you throughout, whether it's for frequent drink refills or, perhaps, an espresso at the end of the meal. They've added original recipes to the menu, but the pizza is just like what they serve in Paris.

When I heard that the proprietors of Cafepino were French (which isn't too hard to figure out once you get there, since many of the staffers, relatives of the owners, greet customers with charming French accents), I was curious to try the French take on an Italian classic.

What a surprise, then, to bite into the crust — ultra-thin in the middle, bubbly, and slightly charred on the edges. The surface was exceptionally crispy, lightly doughy inside. I was hooked on the crispiness.

Among a dozen 12-inch pies, all perfumed with the smoke of the wood-burning oven, the common denominator was a sweet, light tomato sauce, as well as melted mozzarella on all but one of them. For that reason, the pies weren't so distinctive unto themselves. Rather, they were variations on a theme. For example, the Calabria, topped with ground Italian sausage, bacon, and pepperoni, wasn't radically different from the Sicilian, studded with capers and olives. A special of the day, with garlic and shrimp, left a similar impression.

I liked the sauce a lot, but was still glad to try the four-cheese pizza, where sauce wasn't the dominant flavor. Instead, it was a pungent blend of mozzarella, Brie, goat cheese, and blue cheese, so gooey that I kind of had to slurp as I ate. Wickedly good. For added interest, there were lots of interesting extras to top the pies, including egg, capers, tuna, and salmon.

Another wood-fired treat was sweet roasted red peppers blanketed in melted burrata cheese, part of the Antipasto Pino. The portion was lavish, with grilled artichokes and marinated eggplant heaped on the platter along with a fresh loaf of crusty ciabatta bread. (A second antipasto, called the Mea Culpa, comes with salami, prosciutto, and pâté mousse.)

According to Coscas, the kitchen puts a new batch of bread into the oven every hour. That would explain why mine was still warm when it arrived at the table — a nice touch.

Sandwiches also made use of that great bread. I enjoyed the French dip, although it wasn't quite what I expected — a side of au jus was more like gravy, and the flavor of caramelized onions didn't stand up against the shaved prime rib. Meanwhile, the tuna sandwich, topped with tomato, capers, olives, and arugula, was nothing special. Both sandwiches were served with a big pile of skinny, crunchy fries and a decent mixed green salad with herb vinaigrette.

Speaking of salads, the French influence was evident in the excellent niçoise. I've always been a fan of the classic salade niçoise, and Cafepino's version made me — and my hungry dining companions — very happy. It was sharable, although it would've definitely worked as a filling entree. Served in a frilly heap, the salad combined organic greens, tender potatoes, olives, capers, wedges of hard-boiled egg, green beans, tomatoes, and chunks of moist tuna, all tossed in a mouthwatering dressing tinged with Dijon mustard.

There was no separate list of entrees, just free-range rotisserie chicken and a few pastas. I went for the chicken, which was garlicky, covered in herbs, and notably juicy. It was also enough meat for two — a ton of food, really, since it also came with fries and a salad.

Like everything else, the sweets were best tackled by a hungry group. My friends and I had dessert on our minds from the time we walked in the door, since a case full of pastries was the first thing we saw beyond the hostess station.

Cookies 'n' cream was a decadent sundae with a big, chewy chocolate chip-walnut cookie beneath scoops of ice cream and whipped cream. Crème brûlée, speckled with vanilla, was garnished with fresh strawberries and mint leaves. I liked the cocoa-dusted tiramisu, too — it was a fat, fluffy slice, with moist cakey layers of ladyfingers held together by smooth mascarpone.

There have been times when I ended up making a sad little meal out of popcorn and Twizzlers because it was too much trouble to hit up a nice restaurant before a movie. But thanks to Cafepino, I'm pretty sure I'll never be dining at the Cine Capri concession stand again.

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