Restaurants conjure their magic in many ways, and sometimes it takes some pretending on the part of the guest. When I want to be wined and dined, I can easily imagine I'm in another city or country (or at least not in a strip mall). I'll buy into the concept, dress appropriately, and dig in to picturesque plates of food, knowing full well that the theatrics are part of the experience. It's fun to bounce from bohemian bistro to ethnic palace to trendy hot spot. As long as the payoff is a great meal, why not play along?
But there's something special about a mom-and-pop operation that just can't be faked and requires no play-acting from customers. I love the intimacy, the welcoming sincerity, the passion for cooking. That's why I'm so charmed by Tesoro Ristorante Italiano, a tiny eatery in north Scottsdale.
It's tucked out of the way in Ancala Village, on Via Linda just north of Shea. Indeed, it's in a strip mall, but it's uncharacteristically cozy. Out on the patio, where guests can sit under heat lamps, sip Chianti, and order appetizers, there's a freestanding chalkboard displaying daily specials. Inside, framed photos of rustic farmhouses line the walls, which are painted in warm shades of caramel and wine. Dark wood chairs with deep burgundy cushions surround 12 candlelit tables. (Considering how the space fills up, reservations are a must on weekends, and a good idea even on random weeknights.)
"We don't believe in fancy decor. But the food? It's gotta be good it's gotta taste good," says owner Filomena Di Franco. Two years ago, Filomena and her husband Anthony sold their popular south Scottsdale restaurant, Molise, and soon opened Tesoro, which celebrates its second anniversary next month. Molise has since closed, but the Di Francos' new place a compact 45 seats, down from Molise's 120 is thriving.
"Sometimes we feel guilty," Filomena says of the higher customer demand that comes with tighter quarters, "but this feels just right."
It's a true family-run business, with Anthony and daughter Sonia in the kitchen doing all the cooking. Daughter Ania and son Maurizio wait on tables, and sometimes even their grandparents help out in the back. As for Filomena, she does the prep work, checks on guests, and generally keeps an eye on things.
"I like to be the boss," she says, laughing.
Anthony and Filomena are natives of Abruzzi, a region on central Italy's Adriatic coast. Anthony attended a culinary institute during his teens and then moved to northern Italy to build his ràsumà. As a result, says Filomena, "his recipes are kind of from everywhere."
That means veal dishes, fresh seafood, and even osso buco, if it happens to be a special. Aside from the spaghetti and penne, Tesoro's pasta is homemade, including gnocchi and fettuccine. There's plenty of variety, but everything I tasted had one thing in common: lightness. For Italian food, the preparations were fresh and simple, not as heavy as you'd expect for dishes swathed in sauces and cheese. The portions, too, were the perfect amount to fill you without putting you into a food coma.
The spaghetti al pomodoro, with beefy, herby meatballs, exemplified Tesoro's easygoing style. The sauce was not the kind that coats every noodle, but a light, chunky version that still gave the sweet pucker of fresh tomatoes to the al dente pasta.
Among the appetizers, the bruschetta was also deliciously simple, with ripe tomatoes, garlic, and basil atop fresh, toasted bread. I loved that the pieces were still soft and doughy on the inside. Homemade mozzarella, served with olive oil, basil leaves, and slices of tomato, was flavorful and firm. And mussels were served in a chunky tomato-and-garlic broth that was perfect to soak up with pieces of garlic toast.
The surprise hit was escargot ravioli, filled with snails as tender and faintly earthy as wild mushrooms. After tasting so much garlic and tomato, the Pernod cream sauce poured on top of them was a buttery, anise-tinged delight that I kept scooping up even after the ravioli were gone. At one point, I peeked back into the kitchen and smiled when I saw a bottle of Pernod perched on a shelf near the stove.
I tried two chicken entrees and was impressed with how succulent the meat was. Pizzaiola was splashed with caper-studded marinara, while saltimbocca was layered with prosciutto and melted mozzarella. A touch of fragrant sage in the creamy white-wine reduction nicely complemented the prosciutto.
A steaming bowl of linguini with white clam sauce was buttery but not overwhelming, with plenty of garlic and pepper in the broth. The pasta, cooked just right, was not only heaped with clams in the shell but also tossed with finely chopped clam meat. Further up on the decadence scale were the delicious crespelle, two crepes filled with spinach and ricotta. They were baked in cream sauce and spooned with a bit of marinara.
I'd like to try everything on the menu at Tesoro, but that'll only happen if I fit in some extra visits to eat lasagna, as well. It's one of my all-time favorite foods, and yet I've never had it quite like this. Sure, it had a golden layer of melted cheese on top, and the meaty tomato sauce was terrific, but this dish was really all about layers of homemade noodles. They were thin and tender, just a great texture to sink my teeth into. It's no wonder the lasagna is one of Tesoro's most popular dishes.
I wasn't in love with the crème brûlàe it was soupy, and lacked enough sugar crust to crack with a spoon. But the chocolate tartuffo was decent, with a few pieces of frozen gelato rolled in bits of almond and dark chocolate. And the tiramisu? Awesome is the only word for it. The liqueur-soaked ladyfingers were spongy and light, a distinct flavor and texture contrast to rich layers of sweet, creamy mascarpone. It would've been a crime to skip this dessert, and I'm so glad I saved room for it.
Yep, Tesoro's the real deal, the kind of homey Italian joint that every neighborhood should have. The only thing it made me pretend was that I was actually a member of the family.
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