CAN THIS MARINARA BE SAVED?
I've always been a fan of Raffaele's in Mesa, so I was excited when I learned of Lauretta Melchiori and Raffaele Contacessi's plans to open a second restaurant in Phoenix.
The location of Raffaele's at Concord Place is indisputably gorgeous. Nestled deep in the heart of the plush Concord Place office development at Thomas and 44th Street, this Raffaele's has a view not of a parking lot, but of a huge manmade pond, complete with fountains. At night the fountains are lighted, and walking across the bridge from the restaurant to the parking structure, the feel is definitely more European than Phoenician. Inside, the restaurant is attractive, but not lavish. Evergreen and white predominate in the main dining room. China is simply white. A large wine cabinet spans the hallway connecting the room-with-a-view dining room with a second dining area.
I visit Raffaele's at Concord Place twice: once before Chef Contacessi's new menu is implemented, once after. Neither meal leaves me as impressed as I remember being in Mesa. The food is good, but as much as I'd like it to, it just doesn't make the leap to great.
On our first visit, our waiter is an imperious fellow who only loosens up when he senses our check will be substantial. I am relieved when another waiter is assigned to us for our second outing.
On both occasions, bruschetta slathered with fresh chopped tomatoes and garlic is brought before the meal, compliments of the house. I like it. Though the tomatoes are typically too pale, fresh garlic and basil make up for it. We place our order, sit back, munch and admire the handsome view. The carpaccio comes promptly. Raffaele's version consists of extra-thin slices of raw beef marinated in olive oil, lemon juice, garlic and capers--a dish some restaurants would call carne all'albese. It is good, but somewhat one-dimensional.
Having polished off our appetizer, we await our salads. (A tossed salad comes with dinner entrees, but we have ordered special ones.) The combination salad of arugula and radicchio is quite nice, though it costs a dollar more on the new menu ($6.95) than on the old. Baby artichokes are listed as an ingredient, but none can be found amid the plentiful spicy red and tart green leaves of the salad.
Insalata di pomodoro alla paesana is disappointing. The quality of the tomatoes is all-important to this simple salad of sliced tomatoes, Bermuda onion and fresh basil drizzled with olive oil. Unfortunately, as on the bruschetta, they are the flavorless, pale, mushy variety we are cursed with in Phoenix. Honestly, it's enough to break a tomato lover's heart. Without great love apples, this salad is close to pointless. Fresh green basil, however, is wonderful.
At the bottom of the menu, a line of copy requests diners' patience, as everything is cooked to order. While the wait is not as bad as what we've endured at, say, Nick Ligidakis' Golden Cuisine, it is a wait. Several tables of diners who arrive after us receive their food before we do. Finally, our waiter comes by to apologize. It seems one of our entrees takes extra long to prepare.
As the dining room is full and we are not in a rush, we accept this news in relaxed fashion. Happily, within minutes, our waiter returns with steaming plates. Spaghetti al cartoccio (baked spaghetti with wild mushrooms and imported ham) arrives fresh from the oven in a skillet covered with tin foil. It is deftly and gently scooped and twirled out of the pan and onto the plate by our waiter. Risotto al marinario (seafood rice) is presented very simply on a plate.
Of the two entrees, I prefer the latter. Risotto is a pleasant change of pace from usual menu offerings. Raffaele's has a hearty tomato-basil-oregano flavor and is generously topped with tender calamari (squid), mussels, shrimp and scallops. Oddly enough, this same spirit of giving undoes the baked spaghetti dish. The rich, sherry-tinged pasta is overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of sliced mushrooms and ham. The ratio of mushrooms and meat to spaghetti is simply too large for my taste.
As a result, we have no trouble finishing the risotto, but ask to have the remainder of our spaghetti boxed to go. This means, of course, we have room for dessert. Our waiter brings a tray, primarily of cakes, and we find two we can sample.
In the meantime, a cup of cappuccino is delivered lukewarm on arrival. Too bad, too, since it is nicely decorated with a stick of cinnamon on the saucer.
Decorative sauces line our cake plates. They add to the eye appeal and enhance the flavors of both. Champagne cake is light colored, moist and vaguely alcohol flavored. It is very nice.
Chocolate truffle is the kind of cake you break into a sweat just looking at. It's loaded with dark chocolate frosting, layers of chocolate mousse and calories. What more could you ask for? I don't know. Maybe less. It is incredibly rich.
Raffaele's is a good, moderately priced Italian restaurant. Its new location is lovely. The problem is: The restaurant would like to be--and pretends to be--more elegant than it really is. Dissonance between ambition and reality was evident in the Mesa location and it stands out even more in the new one. It's the details that make all the difference at this point: upgraded china, fewer tables per square foot and yes, even riper tomatoes.
Until owners Melchiori and Contacessi decide exactly what their new venture is, fancy or basic, Raffaele's at Concord Place will remain at a distance from the greatness it desires--in either category.
Early this year, when Chef Joseph Gutierrez exited the Scottsdale Princess Marquesa room to join owner Vincenzo Vivolo in revitalizing Ristorante Pronto, many of us scratched our heads. After all, under Gutierrez's care the Marquesa had garnered national attention. Why would anyone leave the big time for a charming neighborhood restaurant?
After two visits to Pronto recently, all I can say is I'm glad he did. The cucina regionale Gutierrez has created at Pronto is exquisite, inspired and earthy at the same time. I would gladly eat in this wood-trimmed, intimate restaurant every night of the week if circumstances allowed.
It is that good.
As at Raffaele's, dinner begins with slices of complimentary bruschetta. At Pronto, however, the tomatoes are red and flavorful, the garlic more subdued.
None of the appetizers we try is disappointing. Crisp-fried calamari MD120 Col freshly chopped tomato and basil are among the best I've ever had. They are delightfully smoky-flavored and garlicky. When I gush about how great the dish is, our waiter tells us the chef uses club soda in the batter. The result is fantastic.
Antipasti consist of prosciutto, mortadella, olives and marinated mushrooms sprinkled with grated Parmesan. We divide and conquer with relish.
On another visit, carpaccio di Parma proves to be a plate of thin-sliced prosciutto sprinkled with grated Parmesan and oregano. (Parma is world-famous as the birthplace for both products.) We delight in a red rose garnish made from a curled tomato peel and basil leaves.
Only the cold mushroom chantilly soup is a letdown. Served somewhere between chilled and room temperature, the creamy soup lacks outstanding flavoring. Frankly, nothing compels me to finish it--an unusual occurrence for me at this restaurant. Usually I am licking my plate.
Tossed salads are included with dinner. Pronto's offers varied greens like oak leaf and romaine lettuce, with shredded radicchio and Bermuda onion for color and zest. For obligatory salads, they are very much above average.
All of the entrees my dining accomplice and I try on our two visits are exceptional. My favorite, by far, is the spaghettini al pomodoro, a simple angel hair pasta dish with fresh basil and chopped tomatoes. In a town full of imitations, this is the real thing.
I also like the gnocchi malfatti--which means "badly made." The green, misshapen dumplings acquire their color from chopped spinach. Light and delicate, these three-cheese gnocchi are surprisingly rich. A simple lemony sauce of fresh basil and butter is the perfect accompaniment.
Agnolotti is a stuffed pasta. Pronto's are half-moon shaped and filled with salmon, escarole and radicchio. The nearly translucent pasta dough is wonderful, as is the sauce tasting of lemon and artichoke.
Finally, a shrimp dish called gamberi al forno, featuring large shrimp in a lemony basil gravy, convinces me that almost anything prepared in this kitchen would be exceptional. Vegetables included with this entree are a single boiled red potato and batter-fried straws of sweet potato. Both manage to please the eye and the palate.
Advocates of la dolce vita will be more than pleased with dessert offerings under the cucina regionale regime. A dark chocolate-coated tartufo, nicknamed the "atom blast" by our waiter, gives a chocolate lover reason to live. Creme brulee served over vanilla ice cream is much better than it sounds; the whole thing melts into heavenly oneness as you dig your spoon into it and discover that sliced strawberries line the custard cup. Tiramisu goes the usual one better: gooey with creamy Mascarpone cheese, it is flavored with brandy and espresso.
Pronto's waiters are true old school professionals. On both nights, we witness demanding customers treated with ease and respect, and special orders handled graciously. When, on our second visit, we have the same waiter, he expresses his pleasure at our return. I believe him.
Chef Joseph Gutierrez will continue to oversee the kitchen at Ristorante Pronto when his (and partner Vivolo's) new restaurant, Tapaspapasfritas, debuts this month. I've been assured that "nothing will change" by the Pronto staff and I can only fervently hope this is true.
Meantime, if the calamari at Pronto is any indication of the good things to come at Tapaspapasfritas, we're all in for a big treat. Raffaele's at Concord Place, 2999 North 44th Street, Phoenix, 952-0063. Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday; Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m., Sunday through Thursday; 5 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday.
Ristorante Pronto, 3950 East Campbell, Phoenix, 956-4049. Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., seven days a week.
The whole thing melts into heavenly oneness as you dig your spoon into it and discover that sliced strawberries line the custard cup.
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