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Garlic Breadth

Va Bene's dishes have the sparkle of homemade.
Lokey

Va Bene Ristorante Italiano, 4025 East Chandler Boulevard, Phoenix, 480-706-4070. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, daily, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Va Bene owner Sasha Cosic welcomes us warmly, leading us through small clusters of tables, inviting us to "sit, please, and enjoy." He offers us menus, but as we reach for them, he tightens his grip. We can look them over, he smiles, but we won't really need them, since Va Bene prides itself on its daily specials.

Americans are used to having elaborate dining choices, he explains, still holding strong to the leatherette-bound menus, but it's impossible for any good kitchen to keep so many items fresh. In Italy, he says proudly, people simply ask their waiter for suggestions, ensuring they will get the very best the kitchen has to offer.

The tug of war ends and he leaves us to peruse Va Bene's admittedly simple menu. There are three soups and three salads. Six starters. Ten pasta dishes and eight entrees. There is certainly enough to choose from, but a quick glance reveals that the kitchen isn't taking too many chances on its specialty perishables. The only fresh seafood is a mussel appetizer and a scampi pasta dish. Entrees feature a choice of chicken or veal, and one mixed grill.

For a moment, I'm nervous. I've been interested in sampling this cozy eatery in a strip mall at the edge of Ahwatukee and am so pleased to find it not only surviving, but thriving, in an area glutted by brand-name restaurants. Reassuringly, the place is packed, even at 6:30 on a Tuesday evening, and even as diners must battle maddening construction along Chandler Boulevard and in Va Bene's torn-up shopping-center parking lot.

Yet, looking over the menu now, it's hard to get excited. There's linguini with pesto sauce. Baked eggplant, mozzarella, tomato and Parmesan. Veal Piccata and chicken breast in lemon sauce with asparagus. I've been there, done that, time and time again.

But then our waiter comes bounding up, a cyclone of happy energy in his white button-down shirt, red tie and elegant knee-length black apron. He can't wait to tell us about the evening's specials, because they are just that, he exclaims. Only the freshest fish, he enthuses. Nothing but the finest meats. Everything chosen just for us and our dining pleasure.

I'm suddenly cheerful. If the entrees are half as good as his descriptions, my dining companion and I are in for an enjoyable evening. And, after a few visits, I'm onto Va Bene's game. Several of this eatery's "specials" can be found on a regular basis. It's just that, given that availability of fresh ingredients, Va Bene isn't willing to commit to a printed guarantee that the chef will serve it to you.

Va Bene's soothing decor takes less brainpower to appreciate. Once we navigate past blinking, orange-bonneted sawhorses and Cat 'dozers in the parking lot, we find a single dining room completely split (thank you) from an added-on bar area. It's nicely cosmopolitan, with Dijon mustard-colored walls, high ceilings finished with crown molding and white-cloth-topped tables overlooking a small patio shimmering with white holiday lights. It's dimly lit; so much so that my dining companion remarks that a coal miner's cap would be helpful. But I love the gentle darkness. Even on slower evenings, the room can get noisy, and interestingly, we often can hear our neighbors' conversations better than our own.

Cosic's family runs the kitchen, and Va Bene's dishes have that uneven sparkle of homemade recipes. Bread is crunchy-crusted one evening, squishy on another. It's always boring, more like unsweetened Wonder bread. And surely an elegant operation like this can do better than messy butter pats served in foil. There's simply no way to wrestle the greasy little monsters without suffering butter-slimed fingers.

As a starter, the bread wilts under its Bruschetta toppings ($5), four big chunks that look fine but have an eerie, almost burned character. I like the sweet tomatoes and the garlic that creeps up to whack us on the nose after a few bites. But the bread is rendered much too squishy under its coat of olive oil.

It's best to just skip this plate, and fill up instead on Costa Smeralda ($4.95), a very shareable salad of mixed greens, tomato, chickpeas, boiled egg quarters, Kalamata olives, red onion and tuna. The canned fish is pressed chalky and dry, but revives under sweet virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar dressing. True, the salad is hardly a unique offering, but we nibble away every bite.

Skip, too, the no-flavor Stracciatella ($3.95), a clear chicken broth with egg whites and Parmesan. Yawn. Minestrone alla Genovese ($4.50) is more worthwhile, robust with big hunks of carrot, zucchini, corn, celery and potato but no pasta. Its good herb broth is rich with pesto, but there's not nearly enough of the soothing liquid.

 

My only real complaint about Va Bene's soups, though? That I don't order the Pasta e Fagioli ($4.95) myself. No, I have to be polite and let it go to my dining companion, who laps lustily from the large bowl of Venetian black beans, lightly pureed and stocked with short pasta. Sprinkled with fresh grated Parmesan, it's wonderfully smooth, dusky, and would be the perfect spooning snack for those times I'm curled up in my fuzzy robe and warm socks.

No one's jealous about my other dining companion's choice of Carpaccio "Va Bene" ($8.50), however. I like this traditional Italian appetizer of thin-shaved beef fillet, but the version we receive is charmless. The Carpaccio is frozen in the middle and completely tasteless, drizzled with a light coat of lemon and olive oil, and missing the capers that give the dish such perkiness. Yes, there's an abundance of Grana (sliced Parmigiano-Reggiano), but it too tastes of emptiness, just thin strips of grainy, rind-like cheese. We push tastings back and forth (no, please, I insist, you take more), and easily half of the generous portion returns to the kitchen.

Spirits revive with the entrance of Cozze "Va Bene" ($8.50). Nicknamed "the poor man's oysters" because of their abundance and reasonable pricing, mussels are a delicious bargain when prepared well. The Cosics know their stuff, serving up a half-dozen clean, juicy bivalves dressed simply with chunky diced tomato, olive oil and garlic in the fish's own buttery liqueur. Yet, there are only two toast rounds presented for the dish's highly sopable juices. Our previously snubbed breadbasket becomes a spoil of war as we joust for soft, doughy pulls.

But nothing, not even the niceties of our mussels, prepares us for Va Bene's Antipasto della Casa ($8.95). I feel just like a proud parent as diners at other tables turn to admire our dish.

Of course, credit must go to the Cosics, who have knocked themselves out gifting us with a platter showcasing sweet, basil-flecked fresh mozzarella slices (with actual mozzarella taste!) and properly salty Prosciutto shavings. Sharing the plate are equally delightful, highly garlicky grilled eggplant rounds; marinated whole mushrooms; tomato; and grilled onion, eggplant, zucchini and green pepper. I positively adore good vegetables, and these win my balsamic-coated affections at first bite.

If there's a single succulent plant to be found at Va Bene, though, it's garlic. Lots and lots of garlic. Long credited with providing and prolonging physical strength (it was fed to Egyptian slaves building the giant pyramids), it also has been credited with curing toothaches, consumption, open wounds and even evil demons. I simply say, "Wow, it tastes good." So what if garlic ruins any date potential? (Did you know its essential oils permeate the lung tissue, which is why it affects breath and even skin odor? I didn't. And that modern-day science has yet to find the perfect antidote for residual garlic odor? I could have guessed.)

Not only is garlic delicious, it's a saving grace for Va Bene's menu-listed items. Without this herbal bulb, little would be memorable in the restaurant's preprinted fare. But, hey, Sasha did warn us, didn't he?

I can actually smell the garlic wafting from my Spaghetti Aglio Olio Peperoncino ($8.95) while it's still three tables away. By the time it's set before me, my nostrils exalt with the secondary scent of hot red pepper, and my taste buds are all atwitter with the pasta perfection to come. I take my first bite and look around the table slyly. You know, I do have to taste everyone else's dish, I announce commandingly. Who's ready to switch? But I've got no takers. For, while my beloved garlic stench is there in force, somehow there is no taste to this food. It's simply slim, overcooked noodles in an oily, aromatic bath.

Scaloppine di Pollo all Pizzaiola ($13.50) is much better, thanks to the CPR of a full-bodied tomato sauce. Chicken is chicken, a nicely cooked breast that's been competently thwacked for tenderness. A side of dry, cold mashed potatoes spiked with baby carrot, broccoli and cauliflower is mere plate dressing (and it comes with every entree -- how dull). But the sauce makes each bite fun, spirited by a sensuous blend of sautéed tomato; onion; capers and whole, pitted Kalamata olives. I cut the olives into tiny pieces to spread their tangy wealth, and here is where I crave some pasta to soak it all up.

Another menu item, Grigliata Mista ($18.95), brings a pretty, mixed-grill plate anchored by sausage, chicken breast, top round of veal and a lamb chop. It's fine, although my dining companions and I find ourselves playing "guess that meat" under the restaurant's dim lighting. The flavors -- and even the textures -- simply don't stand out.

 

But who's to blame here? Again, Sasha can claim, "I told you so." And doesn't our waiter, on each of our successive visits, fine tune the point, gently steering us from Veal Piccata ($16.50) and Scaloppine di Pollo all Genovese ($13.50), because while those dishes are good, we can get them at most any Italian restaurant in town?

Sasha knows it. Now, I know it. One evening's special offering is pork tenderloin ($17.95). It's a thinly pounded, subtly flavored strip doused in a cream, milk and white-wine blend and served atop great, juicy, fresh spinach. Another night we find linguine with mussels, shrimp, clams, and scallops ($18.95). It comes dressed in more of that tasty tomato blend, a huge bowl of al dente pasta with -- to its fault -- a much greater ratio of mussels to other seafood. What we get is yummy, but for a true taste of the sea, we should get more variety for our money.

Linguini in a light, high-garlic clam sauce ($16.95), though, is terrific, perfectly al dente with lots of strong-flavored clams. (As my dining companion and I scrape clean the shells, he pauses to ask me about the origin of the phrase "happy as a clam." This, I know, is mere conversation to let me know he is content with his dinner, but it frightens me that I actually know the answer. Look it up.)

But saving the best for last -- treasuring that single entree that would lure me from my home to traverse the 101 to the 60 to the 10, even in rush hour, is one evening's Ahi special ($20.95). Admittedly, the fish is nothing extraordinary -- it's your basic tuna seared just a smidgen above rare. It's a thin serving, denying me some of the meaty satisfaction I crave with this fish. But it has a pesto crust. A true pesto crust that crunches, that adds dimension, that has more impact than the light herb dusting so many restaurants pass off as "crust."

If you're content with routinely good Italian favorites, Va Bene will leave you quite happy. If you're looking for something special, though, listen to Sasha.

Contact Carey Sweet at 602-744-6558 or online at carey.sweet@newtimes.com

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Va Bene Italian Cuisine & Wine Bar

4647 E. Chandler Blvd.
Ahwatukee, AZ 85048

480-706-4070

www.vabeneaz.com


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