For some, the ultimate comfort food is fried chicken. For others, it's meatloaf. For me, it's lasagna -- a thick, saucy, cheesy slab of Italian heaven. Of course it has to be homemade with Italian sausage like the lasagna I feasted on every holiday season growing up with Italian friends and relatives. Anything out of a box or filled with carrots and zucchini is a travesty.
This week, two hungry Americans went in search of lasagna that would transport our taste buds back to holidays gone by.
The first stop: VinciTorio's
1835 E. Elliott Rd, Ste. 108 in Tempe
VinciTorio's is one of those places that could easily be overlooked. Located in a boring beige strip mall next to a religious meeting house and a dollar theatre, it doesn't look like much on the outside. But 4- and 5-star reviews from locals claiming things like "it blew almost everything else out of the water, even some restaurants in Italy" (Nikki V., Yelp) made me curious enough to try it this week.
Inside, VinciTorio's is dark and cramped, with close-set tables, walls of wine and a faux rock wall with murals of the ocean and countryside. It's not modern or trendy. A thin layer of dust indicates just how long things have been here. Knowing some of the best restaurants are hole-in-the-wall family restaurants that have been around a while, I wasn't put off by the decor. And with owner Mario Vincitorio hailing from Italy, I figured the food might be more authentic than your standard Ital-American joint.
My dining partner and I ordered up the lasagna and snacked on garlic bread while we waited. Our server presented a large portion of lasagna with a pool of watery red sauce about ten minutes later. Color me surprised. Lasagna tends to be a very "heavy" food, the kind that has you loosening your belt after having a slice. But this was the lightest, freshest tasting lasagna I've had in decades.
I'm used to tomato sauce that's thick and blood-red, with tons of oregano and basil. VinciTorio's sauce is light in color and texture, with just a smattering of spices and a taste that's closer to tomato juice. Surprisingly, it was very good. "Looking at it, I didn't think I'd love the sauce," said my companion. "But it tastes delicious. Like fresh vine-ripened tomatoes." To my delight, onions were used sparingly here as to not upset the balance of the ingredients.
The thin, slightly al dente noodles were double-layered. Chunks of sausage between the layers had a delicious fennel undertone without the strong licorice flavor that can easily overpower milder ingredients. All of these ingredients were held together with liberal sprinklings of browned mozzarella that oozed and bubbled out of every crevice.
The cheese was potent and salty, a contrast to the more earthy ricotta. The texture of the ricotta was a delight. Normally this cheese gets mashed down into a tough, paneer-like layer during the cooking process, but here, it was fluffy and melt-in-your-mouth delicious. Molto bene!
Next Stop: Humble Pie
6149 N Scottsdale Rd. in Scottsdale
After seeing Chowhounders nancyhudson and crsin praise Humble Pie as an excellent alternative to Pizzeria Bianco (when a 3-hour wait just won't do), I sampled a couple of their pies with friends and enjoyed everything I tried. But I was always curious about the pasta dishes, which play second fiddle to the pies. So I headed over on a rainy afternoon for a slice of comfort food.
Owner Tom Kaufman is a wine aficionado, so it's no surprise that Humble Pie has the look and feel of a chic wine bar. Dim lighting, mirrored walls and two huge stone-topped bars overlooking the patio and wood-fire oven make for cozy digs whether you're alone or having a romantic evening out. Like VinciTorio's, Humble Pie is technically located in a strip mall. But the fancier address, across from The Borgata, and trendy furnishings help make the place feel more upscale and unique.
My lasagna arrived in minutes, a large square slice with melted provolone cheese on top and a dash of fresh herbs. The red-orange sauce was a bit watery and tasted like oven-roasted tomatoes with just a hint of oregano. The thick lasagna noodles were cooked perfectly, though I wish they had been a little thinner. Having thick noodles makes for a very heavy meal that isn't very stomach-friendly, especially when paired with the acidic sauce.
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The ricotta was mashed down so tight that it lost the delicate texture it's known for. What a pity! It was also strange to see provolone instead of mozzarella on top of the lasagna. It was similar to the gooey texture and salty flavor of melted mozzarella, but with a slight smoky tang that I found very appealing. A worthy addition to traditional lasagna.
Not as appealing was the Schreiner's sausage, which had a very strong fennel taste that beat the poor little tomatoes into submission in my mouth. "This is good lasagna but I enjoyed the other one more," my tasting partner said. "The sausage is really overpowering. And there are additional bits of sausage or meat in the sauce that water down the flavor of the tomatoes." Agreed. It was a pleasing dish, but sat heavier in my gut than VinciTorio's delicate ribbons.
The Winner: Both were comforting, but VinciTorio's lasagna felt more like home.