The phone is ringing again, rattling in its perch on the reservations podium next to the bar at Acqua e Sale. We've been listening to it all through dinner, not because it's an irritation to our meal, but because we've been eavesdropping on the host. He's telling yet another caller that, no, she's reached the long-standing Il Forno restaurant, not the new Il Fornaio on Scottsdale Road. Does she still want to make reservations?
Often enough, the host tells the party thanks for calling anyway, and hangs up. He's been polite the entire evening, but the situation's got to be driving him nuts. The confusion over the similar names has been so prevalent since Il Fornaio opened last February that Il Forno owner Daniel Malventano changed his restaurant's name last month -- to Acqua e Sale. It'll be a while yet before the dining public -- and the 411 folks at the phone company -- catch on.
It's an unfortunate state of affairs. Because while both Il Forno -- oops, Acqua e Sale -- and Il Fornaio are Italian restaurants, that's where the similarity ends. Acqua e Sale is a privately owned eatery that serves remarkably good, upscale Italian cuisine. Il Fornaio is a chain, with dozens of locations across America, that serves mid-level Italian food. Acqua e Sale is a tony parcel of three intimate dining rooms, and Il Fornaio is a yawning broad space of booths with a wall of glass overlooking an office complex parking lot. Acqua e Sale is fantastic, Il Fornaio is simply fine. Not exactly interchangeable dining experiences.
This isn't the first time Malventano has adapted his restaurant to reflect market conditions, however. When he first opened eight years ago, it was with a simpler menu, a bistro decor and much lower prices. Valley diners at the time equated Italian food with staples like pizza, calzones and periodic adventures like gnocchi or pasta with cream and -- ooh -- pine nuts. So Malventano delivered, with entrees priced under $10.
About three years ago, as the Valley's dining scene was evolving, Malventano stepped up with it. Black-and-white tile flooring was replaced with dark carpeting, and the walls glittered with sleek cherry wood and expansive mirrors. A decor of stylish, ornately framed black-and-gold prints replaced huge jars of dried pasta. The menu was goosed up with a few more interesting items like carpaccio, frutti di mare (cold, marinated calamari, shrimp, octopus, clams and olives) and pollo in agro dolce (chicken breast stuffed with wild mushrooms, figs and plums in a vin santo sauce). Prices doubled.
Now, it's the new millennium, and exotica are so accessible they're almost boring (Subway's now serving asiago Caesar sauce on its fast-food sandwiches, no kidding). Diners wanted to be wowed, so Malventano has kicked up his fare yet another notch. Niceties now dot the menu: black truffle oil, duck prosciutto, white truffle sauce, escolar. Happily enough, prices are still in the same range. This is no cheap feast, to be sure, topping out at $28.95 for a gorgeous Australian rack of lamb that's doused in an herbal marinade and roasted in a wood-burning oven. But with quality this good, I'm not complaining.
Every summer, Malventano tours Italy, scouring trattorias for interesting dishes. On his most recent trip, he also commissioned the talents of Italian artist Marino Moretti to create his new logo and artwork for his new menu. I don't know what size the original art pieces are (they're just a few inches when printed on the menu), but framed on the wall, or silkscreened on tee shirts, the colorful, Monty Python-esque illustrations could be collectors' items.
Now, the phone ringing at the bar really isn't intrusive, especially masked by the piped-in contemporary Italian jazz vocals. Still, diners seeking full refinement will be most content in the restaurant's front dining room, embracing just a handful of white-clothed tables. It's sitting here one evening that allows me to witness an Acqua e Sale staffer trot out to the valet and hand him a plate of pasta. Nice.
The gesture's almost as good as the plates themselves, an eclectic mix of beautiful, hand-painted china. Presentation is everything, so the saying goes, and in this case, it does seem as if the pretty saucers add even greater charm to prosciutto d'anatra, a duck appetizer. Five slender slices of bright red bird lounge against a pattern of bright blue flowers, edged in a wisp of flavorful fat and musky with truffle oil. A center strip of crunchy crostini smeared with heady black truffle spread usually finishes the plate, but tonight's special finds it paired with moist buffalo mozzarella and slices of organic tomato, too.
There's little plate showing beneath a full moon of fine carpaccio, however. Lots of top-grade beef, sliced translucent thin, melts under a light drizzle of black truffle oil and shavings of fresh Parmesan ringed by zingy arugula. Salmone con melone comes in a more delicate portion, lovely in silky slices, centered by rosettes of cantaloupe stuffed with tomato chunks. Even calamari, typically weighty critters, benefit from the quickest frying and light batter -- the squid rings are deep-sea gossamer dipped in a zesty, olive oil-based marinara that does decadent double duty as a dipping sauce for warm, crusty bread.
I don't have a clue what kind of dinnerware holds Acqua e Sale's soups and salads, though. Nothing can distract me from an outright voluptuous stracciatella, a rich chicken broth bursting with fresh spinach and loads of pillowy egg white -- a local farmer tends a flock of chickens simply to supply the eggs for this soup, I'm told. The Valley's One Windmill Farm is responsible for the gracious produce in the salads, too, tendering the ravishing Belgian endive in the Gorgonzola and caramelized walnut salad painted with homemade honey Dijon vinaigrette.
Verde e bianca is another stunner, lacing crystal-crisp Bibb lettuce with thin asparagus stalks, chubby wands of palm heart and bitter grapefruit chunks. The millennium magic of this dish comes from what it doesn't have -- thick, Americanized dressing. A light varnish of extra virgin olive oil is all that's needed. This puritan touch, ironically, is what makes another simple dinner salad an acceptable deal for $6.95. Don't begrudge the cost until you've sampled Acqua e Sale's della campagna, a minimalist marvel of field greens and organic tomatoes tossed in olive oil and squeezed with fresh lemon. So many modern Italian eateries would douse the salad in that condiment of the moment, balsamic vinegar, completely obscuring any other flavor.
While Malventano has updated his menu, he's wisely held on to a few traditional favorites, including veal lasagna, ravioli del giorno (bursting with Maryland crab and drizzled with more of that truffle oil) and capellini con pomodorino freschi (angel hair pasta in a tomato, basil, garlic and olive oil sauce). Again, price tags nudging $20 won't seem so frightening after you've tasted your meal. Spaghetti alla vongole, for example, shows why something straightforward, when done professionally, can be so successful: It's a deep bowl, decorated with smiling, hand-painted fish, full of perfect pasta, juicy Manila clams and white wine sauce. Taglioline al limone con capesante, new to the menu, leaves nothing more to be desired, featuring four delicate diver scallops over egg pasta with butter lemon sauce.
One caveat -- pasta portions here aren't the overindulgent masses you'll find at other Italian restaurants such as, say, Il Fornaio. You get what you get -- a comfortable tangle of noodles and toppings, and nothing else. For more "stuff," stick to the fish, poultry and meat entrees. Osso buco won't leave any diners hungry, not with the thick hunk of center-cut veal shank over a mound of fettuccine. After the last bite of tender braised calf has been consumed, scoop out the succulent bone marrow and dip your bread in the deep brown vegetable sauce.
Pollo alla valdostana is another new character on the fall menu; chicken breast is rolled with imported San Daniele prosciutto and fontina cheese, then coated with a light mushroom sauce. The poultry oozes blond cheese as it's sliced, puddling into sides of wild mushrooms and chunky mashed sweet potatoes.
Would I prefer a side of pasta instead of sweet potatoes? I can have it, our server tells me -- in fact, diners at Acqua e Sale can have virtually anything they want, as long as the kitchen can produce it, he says. I test the theory one evening, ordering my sea bass Genovese style, rich with butter and wine and partnered with red potatoes, artichoke hearts and terrific fennel au gratin. It's good, but not up to the level of the restaurant's regular Mediterranean presentation. Wet, mild sea bass does better with a gutsy one-two punch of simmered tomatoes, sweet roasted peppers, capers and Kalamata olives.
The artwork topping the dessert menu is a gothic-looking creature that appears to be half man, half dragon. He's holding a cake, and sports additional faces on his scaly back and at the tip of his curved tail. No wonder -- dessert is where the over-the-top presentations surface, and any additional mouths come in handy. A slab of tiramisu is as large as a lasagna entree. White chocolate tartufo (Italian ice cream) comes in a big silver goblet under a crush of white chocolate chunks. Tarte di mele is a satisfying slice of fresh apples and pastry decorated with a scoop ($3 extra) of Grand Marnier ice cream.
Dessert is also the only time a true flaw surfaces -- profiteroles are more mushy Ding Dongs than delicate puff pastry, lined with scant chantilly cream and coated in too much flat-flavored chocolate mousse.
Hey, everyone's entitled to one mistake. Just like those poor folks who, after calling Acqua e Sale by mistake, decided to go to Il Fornaio instead.
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