COME AND 'GHETTI IT
Esperanto, 9393 North 90th Street, Scottsdale, 661-6499. Hours: Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 4 to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 4 to 10 p.m. Even if you're not Italian, it's almost impossible to think about Italian food without picturing Mama in the kitchen, endlessly stirring steaming pots of pasta and sauces for hubby and the bambinos. If you've grown up in an Italian neighborhood, like I did, you know the scene firsthand.
But movies have made it a universal image, anyway. From Little Caesar to The Godfather, films show Mama's home cooking seducing the most vicious killers, deflecting them, at least temporarily, from a life of crime. In fact, if you watch enough of these kinds of flicks, you might conclude that the answer to the crime problem isn't more police and more prisons, but more homemade lasagna. I can't say for sure whether Esperanto and Chianti, two local noodle houses, will clear the streets of felons or make the sheriff's posse obsolete. But any criminal elements that choose to eat there certainly won't be able to connect their antisocial behavior to negligent cooking. The operators of recently opened Esperanto are part of the California entrepreneurial class that has been singing "Arizona, Here I Come" in the 1990s. For a dozen successful years, they ran Esperanto in San Diego's Pacific Beach area, a favorite Zonie habitat. Now they've closed down there, hoping to duplicate that run in Scottsdale. The place has a country bistro look. Brick walls, a flagstone path and white latticework laced with faux vines are not the traditional pasta-parlor visual cues. Neither is the trio of French doors sporting mirrored panels on each side of the room.
But Esperanto offers an even more compelling piece of visual shtick. Two large television screens at each end of the room play classic movies from the owners' 120-title collection. The evening we visited featured the Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr weepie An Affair to Remember. The friendly proprietors offered to spool up any film in stock if we gave them a day's notice. A Frenchman once remarked that America was the only society that ever passed directly from barbarism to degeneracy, without stopping at civilization. No doubt he had in mind our mania to eat and watch television simultaneously. But somehow, chowing down pasta and watching Cary Grant didn't seem quite the crime against civility I'd have thought. Maybe that's because Esperanto serves such commendable, made-from-scratch fare that I occasionally felt like I was eating in an Italian living room. Dinner gets off on a high note with toasted garlic bread, fashioned with real chopped garlic, not dismal garlic powder. This was the first indication that somebody in the kitchen knew more about cooking than simply wielding a can opener. The soups confirmed this impression. (Meals come with soup or salad.) The cream of spinach was luscious, full of the flavor of freshly pured greens, and thickened with cheese. Well-stocked seafood chowder provided another pleasant soup option. Like the cream of spinach, it, too, had no hint of the institutional. The dinner salad, an unexceptional mix of greens, red onions and shredded carrots, had no particular distinction, although the house blue cheese vinaigrette did all it could to help. Stick to the soup. If you must have greenery, you might try sharing one of the large salad platters. The version called "La Boheme" comes with a healthy pile of lettuce, chicken strips, artichoke quarters, carrots, squash and kidney beans. But, frankly, this, too, seemed strictly routine. Especially in comparison with the pastas. This is where an Italian noodle house has to deliver, and Esperanto's fresh, homemade varieties come through. First, you pick out the shape of your pasta--thin spaghettini, thicker linguini or broad fettuccine. Next, specify semolina (white) or spinach (green). Then, choose from about a dozen different preparations, whose prices hover between $9 and $11. Fettuccine with sweet butter, cheese and parsley is almost impossibly rich. In fact, the dish is so intense that the flavors get somewhat lost. A bit of garlic or an herb stronger than parsley would help. As for the fettuccine itself, the cook takes the notion of al dente seriously. You'll need a working set of choppers to make your way through this platter. The richness of the sweet butter and cheese showed up in just about every other sauce here, as well. You're not going to find anything thin or understated swabbed on your pasta. Esperanto isn't for wimps. Take the spinach lasagna, wonderfully chewy sheets of noodles ladled with sausage-laced sauce that tasted like the distilled essence of a thousand tomatoes. Or the linguini, thickly bathed in garlic butter and cream, topped (too lightly) with teeny weeny scallops, clams and shrimp. You don't get this kind of intensity at the Olive Garden, and for some folks, this homespun, full-bodied style may take some getting used to. Except for the tortellini, an evening special that proved instantly irresistible. Fashioned with an exceptionally light touch, the pouches come sprinkled with basil and stuffed with four zippy cheeses. About the only lackluster item was the calzone. In my mind, I pictured a big, airy, doughy, cheese-filled crust. What I got was more like a puny pizza pocket, soggy under a bucket of sauce. Maybe calzones look like this in Pacific Beach, but this isn't what I grew up with in Canarsie. On a more positive note, the aromatic, pesto-coated spinach linguini alongside got to claim my full, undivided attention. Desserts are made elsewhere, but they shouldn't be dismissed on that account. Sure, the cannoli didn't have quite the right, authentic look or texture. But the chocolate mousse, sitting on a cookie crust and encased in a thin chocolate shell, made me a believer. Fresh pasta and hard-hitting sauces are a potent combination. When you throw in reasonable prices and a homey atmosphere, Esperanto looks like a contender in the crowded Valley pasta scene. Chianti, 3943 East Camelback, Phoenix, 957-9840. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to close; Dinner, Saturday and Sunday, 5 p.m. to close. If ever a low-cost restaurant seemed perfectly designed for its affluent neighborhood clientele, Chianti is it. It's got a touch of class.
This place features ornate wrought-iron chandeliers, whitewashed brick walls and polite servers spiffily dressed in white shirts, bow ties and black aprons. The walls display a gallery of colorful Italiana: posters of Siena, Venice and Michelangelo's "David." I got the impression most of the patrons could look at them and say, "Been there, been there, done that." You don't usually find this sort of appealing upscale casualness in a place that specializes in pizzas and $7.95 noodle dishes. But making diners feel comfortable while going easy on their wallets is obviously a wise business maneuver. Judging from the crowds packing Chianti on a sweltering midweek summer night, I'd bet half the neighborhood couples came home from work and said to each other, "Forget about cooking, let's go to Chianti." Of course, atmosphere isn't everything. Chianti could look like the Sistine Chapel, but without reasonably compelling fare, I suspect it would be empty. Unless you're a rabbit, it really doesn't pay to order any of the appetizer salads. That's because the entrees all come with salad, anyway. Perhaps if Chianti offered a soup as well as a salad option with the main dishes, people might be more tempted to try the antipasto. It's nothing fancy--a plate of greens, meats, cheese, tomatoes, a bit of artichoke and some roasted red peppers--but it's enlivened by a perky vinaigrette. But this same salad dressing refreshes the house salad, too. Save your $7.95 for the pasta. In particular, save it for the cannelloni. They're absolutely scrumptious, two light, doughy crepes wrapped around an unusually fragrant blend of ground chicken, veal, spinach and cheese. A mild Alfredo sauce, sprinkled with meat, provides unassuming accompaniment that doesn't get in the way of either taste or texture. The cannelloni are a hard standard to match. The tortellini almost get there, stuffed with a vibrant chicken and prosciutto interior and bathed in a creamy cheese sauce studded with walnuts. But the tortellini themselves, a tad heavy and chewy, don't have quite the fresh, ethereal lightness of Esperanto's. Still, this is a satisfying and filling platter. I can't say the same thing about the dull homemade ravioli. The principal problem here is the meat sauce, a bland, generic-tasting production that has no hint of the Italian Mama behind it. It's hard to believe this dish was fashioned by the same hands that produced the tortellini and cannelloni. Things get back on track with the stuffed eggplant, a cheap and effective way to beat back hunger pangs. A generous portion of sliced eggplant is sauted, lightly breaded and rolled up with ricotta. And it comes with a side order of penne pasta in a light, gently seasoned tomato sauce that has the air of the Italian countryside in it. Chianti also whips up a mean pizza. The sizzling, ten-inch pizza pesto we sampled sported a bready crust, aromatic infusions of olive oil and basil, and plenty of sliced tomatoes and pine nuts. Pass on the made-elsewhere desserts, though. They're unmemorable, except for the expense. Neither the tiramisu nor the cannoli exhibited any sort of punch. There aren't too many places on Camelback, east of 24th Street, where you can be called "Sir" and eat for ten bucks in pleasant surroundings. Chianti has identified the niche, and has done a good job filling it.
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