One dilemma I face as a restaurant reviewer is how long of a grace period I should allow an infant establishment before writing about its fare. Some of my pals in the eatin' biz assert that a newbie grub shack should be ready from jump, while others say that the fledgling enterprise may need anywhere from a couple of months to a year to work out the kinks.
But what if I as a customer happen to stumble upon a newborn nosherie and the place ends up working out its kinks on my tab? This is what happened in late June when I stopped by a recently opened restaurant on South Central Avenue, which I'll decline to name until I review it in full. The food wasn't bad, but the service was so infuriatingly slow and slipshod that I was ready to throttle someone by the time the check arrived. My server kept disappearing, and judging from her drooping eyelids and giggling demeanor, I'm pretty sure she'd been burning one out back with the busboy. Not that I would have minded if she'd offered me a hit, but, alas, the only thing she wanted to share with me was her Tommy Chong impersonation.
There were other problems that evening, but the paint was barely dry on the walls, and I thought, "Give them a few weeks to get it together and then go back." So last week, I called to place a reservation. The fellow who answered asked me to wait, put the phone down without placing me on hold, and promptly forgot about me while my blood boiled. As General MacArthur once said about the Philippines, I shall return, though I'm not sure if I should do so to dine or score a lid from the wait staff!
5114 North Seventh Street, Phoenix
Jalapeo paisano: $7
Hearts of palm salad: $7
House cut pork chop: $17
Nana's orecchiette: $15
Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Compare this pathetic excuse for an eatery with the Italian bar and grill Blac-a-Zoli, which opened on August 2, and for the most part has its act together. Situated directly across from Hamburger Mary's on Seventh Street in a spot last occupied by Desert Sweet Shrimp, Blac-a-Zoli is a class act, a product of the collaborative efforts of restaurateur Robert Capozzoli and his significant other, Kristine Black.
Capozzoli has spent much of his 45 years on this planet in the food-and-beverage industry, most recently as a bartender at Phoenix City Grille, and before that as the owner and operator of Stumpy's Pizza at 13th Street and Northern. So maybe it's no surprise that Capozzoli already has his new business running with enviable efficiency. I was seated promptly when I arrived, and from that point on, the service was glitch-free, from the attentiveness of the wait staff to the invariably frozen mugs in which my Stella Artois draft beer was brought to me.
Blac-a-Zoli boasts an appealing interior design, its main dining room a subtle symphony of burgundy, taupe and green-gray, with shutters and chairs of stained wood and wrought iron. There's also a nice-sized drinking area with a long, jagged bar of black marble, and to the south of this, a big patio that should be a superb place to sup once the weather cooperates.
The menu is an intriguing mix of offerings, some familiar and some not, but most with an interesting twist from chef Vincent Contreras. The fried calamari, for instance, are served in an edible ramekin fashioned from won ton skins. This sits in a pool of deliciously peppery tomato sauce, known as fra diavolo ("brother devil"), a name derived from the epithet for a feared 18th-century Italian brigand. The calamari include both rings and tentacles, are lightly fried, and terribly delicious with this tangy concoction.
The jalapeño paisano is another exceptional appetizer, made of Italian sausage mixed with cream cheese, Parmesan and Asiago, and placed atop halves of roasted jalape--os. The recipe is Capozzoli's, and a better bar snack would be hard to imagine. The seven-spice tuna -- rectangles of seared ahi with watermelon juice and a ginger-corn sauce -- was also tasty. Only the shrimp cocktail was merely average: five big prawns coming in a glass of Clamato straight from the jar.
Conversely, Blac-a-Zoli's chicken noodle soup is prepared with fat, scrumptious house-crafted noodles in an especially rich broth, and it's about as close to Campbell's as a Maserati is to a moped. When I eat BZ's hearts of palm salad, I wonder if Capozzoli knew I was coming. I adore hearts of palm, though usually you only see them at Brazilian steak houses. It's an inspired notion to include them here, with slices of provolone, carrots and red onions in a red wine vinaigrette.
A stack of flawless steak fries and a thick red wine sauce make the filet mignon memorable. Similarly, the port wine reduction and the juniper berries that top the grilled, center-cut pork chop compensate for a slight dryness in the swine flesh itself, which can be overcome easily by dipping each morsel into that exquisite syrup.
I'm reminded of a quote from the great British war correspondent Philip Gibbs that "there is poetry in a pork chop to a hungry man," because that's what Blac-a-Zoli's pork chop is, pure poetry. Then, there's Nana's orecchiette, pasta shaped like "little ears" in a creamy vegetable stock, with currants, pine nuts, crumbled Gorgonzola and a side of broccolini. This orecchiette offers such an outstanding combination of flavors that I can barely pull my head out of the bowl while grazing on it.
After all this, the spaghetti and meatballs are a letdown. The meatballs are adequate, the pasta so-so, and the marinara listless and stingily applied. My advice: More and better marinara, sirs! This is one dish that should be a no-brainer.
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The desserts also need some work, I'm afraid.
The watermelon-vodka sorbet seems like a good idea, but is less flavorful than I'd prefer. And I've never had a flourless chocolate cake that did anything for me. They all taste like those brownies kids bake with their Easy-Bake ovens. Blac-a-Zoli's is no exception. The peach shortcake, with its layers of crisps, peaches, and whipped cream, is better, but nothing to do handstands over.
Still, such gripes aside, Blac-a-Zoli is an excellent example of being ready for business by the time you open for business: a trait some other neophyte hash-slingers in town would do well to emulate.