Good & Polenta
Veneto Trattoria, Hilton Village, 6137 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 948-9928. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.
These are golden days for the Valley's Italian-food fans. Judging by the exploding number of Italian restaurants in town, apparently 90 percent of the eating-out population wants to dine in an Italian restaurant every night. The other 10 percent? They're busy running Italian restaurants.
So what's new? The utterly delightful Veneto Trattoria, serving outstanding Venetian and northern-Italian specialties. What's old? The umpteenth reincarnation of Nick Ligidakis, this time as director of operations at Cafe Nikos.
Housed in the old Vagara Bistro storefront in Hilton Village, Veneto Trattoria has been getting great word of mouth since it opened about six months ago. I have no hesitation confirming its exceptional charms in print.
What makes Veneto Trattoria special? As you might expect, the food is terrific. But this place is more than food, it's the total restaurant package. It's hard to imagine eating here and not having a wonderful time.
First, the setting. It's a casual place, more osteria than trattoria, a bustling, big-city neighborhood spot that caters to locals. There are no linen tablecloths on the wooden tables, no fancy design elements and no pretension. Italian masks brought back from the old country by the husband-and-wife proprietors are mounted on the wall. So are pictures of Venice. Opera arias are piped in, but the happy sounds of so many people enjoying themselves make the music hard to hear.
Second, the service. This is the kind of place where the staff remembers you. On a repeat visit, the wife/hostess remembered our (phony) name, where we'd sat and what we'd ordered. The servers are knowledgeable and professional.
Third, the prices. For Scottsdale, they're very reasonable, with entrees ranging from $8.50 to $17.50. And when's the last time you saw restaurant espresso for $1.75 anywhere north of Camelback and east of 24th Street? You won't leave here thinking you hadn't gotten your money's worth.
But setting, service and value wouldn't mean much if the kitchen also didn't shine. I was told the Venetian chef worked at a Michelin-starred restaurant back home before he was lured here. I believe it.
Veneto Trattoria's menu offers dishes you can find anyplace there's red-checked oilcloth, Chianti in wicker baskets and canned accordion music: veal scaloppine; grilled sea bass; spaghetti with seafood; chicken in a red wine sauce. But the chef's heart is clearly in the regional Venetian specialties, which are starred on the menu. You won't find dishes like these elsewhere, and they're what make this place stand out from the Italian-restaurant crowd.
Baccala mantecato is the first piece of evidence. It's dried, salt-cured cod, marinated in milk and pureed into a mousse, served over wedges of polenta and teamed with greens and red onion. There's nothing timid about this mix of flavors. Calamari is also first-rate, floating in a spoon-lickin' tomato sauce.
We turned gnocchi into a shared first course, with no regrets. That's because the light, potato-flour dumplings were coated with a heavenly meat sauce that sang with the flavors of Italy. If you're not into sharing, get yourself a bowl of the hearty 12-bean and barley soup and don't let anyone else use your spoon.
The main dishes sparkle. Risotto with pumpkin and wild mushrooms packs a powerful punch, especially once your server grates Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese over it. Roasted duck breast is especially ravishing, the meat fanned across the plate and spruced up with bits of duck liver and smoked pork, creating a harmony of rich, salty, smoky flavors. Excellent mashed potatoes and properly cooked mixed veggies--not so al dente that you need a pick ax to cut them--furnish good support.
If you're turned on by liver, you'll have to be hosed down after Veneto Trattoria's fegato alla Veneziana arrives. It's a big portion of thin-sliced liver, done up with olive oil in traditional Venetian fashion, and paired with polenta and onions in a thick, fragrant gravy. Even the liver-shy in our group were impressed.
For simple, rustic charm, you can't beat luganega, pork garlic sausages. You also can't beat the price--an eye-rubbing $8.50. That sum gets you two plump, juicy sausages, accompanied by wedges of grilled polenta and braised Savoy cabbage. The same compelling rusticity also invigorated one evening's special, bollito di manzo. It was three slices of boiled beef, teamed with a trio of sauces, including a riveting apple horseradish.
You can order non-Venetian entrees with confidence, too, if the salmon is any guide. It's a grilled fillet, boosted by an aromatic olive puree and adorned with cherry tomatoes.
The kitchen is just as skilled with dessert as it is with everything else. Just thinking about the semifreddo makes me want to go back for more. It's semifrozen meringue studded with dried fruit and pine nuts, drizzled with chocolate sauce and surrounded by a puddle of raspberry coulis. Yum. The marzipan apple tart, gilded with vanilla ice cream and apricot sauce, is also a winner. The chocolate hazelnut cake, a somewhat more pedestrian effort, suffers in comparison.
Let's hope success doesn't tempt the proprietors to change the restaurant's formula. Please: Keep prices sane; don't throw white linen on the tables; don't try to please everybody by adding wood-fired pizza or veal Parmesan to the menu; don't move to larger quarters; and don't lose the neighborhood feel.
Right now, Veneto Trattoria is the kind of Italian restaurant we didn't know the Valley was missing, until it showed us what we were missing. It looks poised for a long, prosperous run.
Cafe Nikos, 3360 North Hayden, Scottsdale, 423-8977. Hours: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 9 a.m. to midnight.
Like saguaros, Camelback Mountain and red-tile roofs, Nick Ligidakis seems to be a permanent part of our desert landscape. He's now on his sixth Valley restaurant, once again whipping up the one-of-a-kind, Italian-Greek specialties that have brought him notoriety ever since he first set up operations in a McDowell Road storefront almost 15 years ago.
At Cafe Nikos, the dishes haven't changed much since those early days, and neither has the chef's attitude toward them. The Soup Nazi could take lessons from Nick: "NO SUBSTITUTIONS TO OUR RECIPES," says the menu in capital letters. When you eat here, it's either Nick's way or the highway. I can deal with that: For the most part, Nick's way is perfectly fine with me.
This is probably the most charming of Nick's many restaurant incarnations. It's a small, cozy room, tucked away in a hard-to-find shopping-center storefront. The dozen or so tables are set with white-linen cloth. Display cases show off the huge dessert selection. One wall is lined with rows of coffee and tea in glass bottles. And you can watch Nick at work in the open kitchen.
Nick hasn't spent his most recent downtime rethinking his culinary philosophy. It's always been, "More is good, and lots more is even better." Cafe Nikos keeps up the belt-loosening tradition.
A single appetizer should take care of several appetites. Don't order the feta dill fritters unless there are at least three of you. That's because you get three big, deep-fried croquettes, tastily stuffed with spinach, pine nuts and ground lamb, with a yogurt dipping sauce. The same goes for the pepperoni formaggi, another take on the croquette theme. They're deep-fried balls filled with pepperoni, roasted peppers and mozzarella. Spanakorizo, meanwhile, brings five deep-fried fritters crammed with dill-accented spinach, rice and cheese. Let's see, is anyone starting to detect an appetizer pattern?
One reason appetizers may be superfluous is that dinners come with a bowl (not cup) of soup or a big salad, along with homemade focaccia. The two soups we tried, a potato spinach Parmesan and meat-flecked black bean, were topnotch, rich, hearty and filling. The greenery is also well-crafted, especially if you coat it with the house feta dressing.
Nick's fans will be pleased to learn that his over-the-top entrees are basically unchanged. That means you'll have about as much chance finding subtlety in a Nick Ligidakis main dish as you will finding a well-thumbed copy of the The Communist Manifesto on Governor Hull's nightstand.
Take the garlicky Salonika chicken, a breast adorned with sausage, mushroom and pepperoncini, tossed with capers and pine nuts, loaded with an orange brandy sauce and served over pasta. Somehow, it all works. So does veal Skordato, another wild creation: veal stuffed with ham, breaded with almonds and walnuts, then bathed in a creamy provolone sauce. Shrimp Athena also doesn't stint on the Mediterranean touches: You get the full impact of olive oil, lemon, garlic, tomato and herbs in this platter.
Sometimes, though, more is not better. There was so much cheese on the lobster manicotti special that the lobster taste got overwhelmed. And sometimes Nick is so busy adding seasoning harmony that he loses sight of the melody. That's the case with the Sundried Sea Bass, a platter whose centerpiece is a too-ordinary piece of fish. That's true, too, for the linguine pesce, an otherwise compelling effort that relies too heavily on those horrid, thumbnail-size shrimp for effect.
When it comes to dessert, Nick continues to believe that nothing succeeds like excess. Perhaps the only way to face his heart-stoppingly rich and massive sweets is with Nietzschean resolve: Whatever doesn't kill me, I told myself, makes me stronger.
I survived the peanut butter cheesecake. I survived the chocolate truffle cheesecake. I survived the Lady Killer, a confection that employs blackberry mousse, white chocolate, peanuts, banana and lady fingers. And, for the moment, I've somehow survived the Fatal Addiction, a near-death blend of white and dark chocolate, hazelnut chocolate, chestnut puree and Kahlua. Try to knock off any these desserts single-handedly, and you'd better come with a cell phone, with the "9" and the "1" already punched in.
Will the sixth time be a charm? Who knows? Nick already has had almost as many lives as Shirley MacLaine. For his fans' sake (and I'm one of them), let's hope Cafe Nikos ends the cycle.
Roasted duck breast
Feta dill fritters
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Phoenix dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.