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Linguini Bopper

Che Bella Tuscan Grill & Bakery, Biltmore Fashion Park, 24th Street and Camelback, Phoenix, 956-5705. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight.

What comes to mind when you think about improving the Valley's quality of life? Reliable mass transit? Better schools? Responsible development? Unindicted politicians?

How about more Italian restaurants? I suspect this idea would not land very high on most folks' list. It would probably fall somewhere between suggestions to increase the number of parking spaces at Fashion Square and calls to hire mimes to perform at freeway off-ramps.

After all, Phoenix is awash in Italian restaurants--a few great ones, a few terrible ones and scores of mediocre ones. But the numbers haven't deterred the proprietors of Che Bella and Raghetti's, who've recently started operations a few blocks apart along the once-glitzy Camelback corridor. Apparently, they think they can distinguish themselves from the crowd.

Che Bella (pronounced KAY-BELLA) occupies the spot that formerly housed Oscar Taylor, whose long run ended earlier this year. The name means "How nice" in Italian, and that phrase certainly applies to the striking bar area, an upscale habitat thick with fashionable folks and cigar smoke. The airy, refurbished dining area has acquired a "contemporary" design that still needs tweaking: The overhead lights don't focus on the tables; the stylish, curved-back chairs are more comfortable to look at than to sit in; and the mood-destroying, thumpa-thumpa rock music pumped in during one visit must have escaped from Houlihan's, a few doors down.

The restaurant's backers certainly understand the importance of location. The Biltmore Fashion Park area offers almost every sort of fare--Japanese, Mexican, Southwestern, American, French, fusion, seafood, steak. Oddly, though, a big-time, white-linen-tablecloth Italian place has not been part of the mix. Can Che Bella fill the slot? I'd say maybe, almost.

When the kitchen is on, as it is with the appetizers, it's hard to believe there can be any doubts. For proof, check out the luscious baked polenta, adorned with rich Gorgonzola cheese, embellished with a mound of savory wild mushrooms and garnished with Belgian endive. This dish smacks you full force with the heady flavors of Tuscany.

Antipasto is a good measure of an Italian restaurant's commitment to quality. Here, too, Che Bella delivers, assembling a hearty combination of meats, squid, peppers, eggplant, artichokes, palm hearts, fresh mozzarella, marinated mushrooms, tomato and basil. But the mushy focaccia that accompanied the platter tasted as if it had come out of the oven long before the dinner hour.

Porcini Napoleone is another tasty starter, teaming the earthy-flavored mushrooms with goat cheese and peppers, all moistened in an appealing orange-tomato vinaigrette. And soup fans shouldn't mind shelling out $5.50 for a bowl of the house minestrone, a thick, bean-studded broth flecked with a bit of lobster and suffused with the scent of basil. Homemade Italian bread, crusty and chewy, makes a perfect partner.

If the main dishes had been as universally stimulating as the appetizers, Che Bella would join Franco's Trattoria, Un-Bacio and La Locanda in the front rank of local northern Italian restaurants. Though several entrees do approach the heights, others fall significantly short.

At the top of the list is the sea bass, an expertly charbroiled slab, with an alluringly moist, flaky interior and crusty exterior. It's lined with prosciutto, and paired with first-rate scalloped potatoes and grilled veggies. The $14.50 tag is nowadays practically a bargain in this town.

Gnocchi, potato flour dumplings, are also outstanding. Che Bella's models are light and fluffy, perfect vehicles for the wonderfully rich mascarpone cheese sauce that coats them. The seafood risotto, one evening's daily special, hits the bull's eye, as well. Shrimp, scallops and mussels impart a briny flavor to the cheesy rice. This is an intense, heavy dish, and Che Bella doesn't stint on the portion, either. (If I had to do it over again, I'd probably order it as a shared appetizer.)

However, the kitchen needs to work on its animal protein. The only beef dish on the menu, a grilled filet, falls short of the highest standard. The nifty black olive sauce that coats it couldn't entirely obscure the mediocrity. Veal, the meat choice of northern Italy, also doesn't get its due here. My grilled veal chop, for which I had been panting, was a huge disappointment. It was somewhat puny, which I could forgive. But it was also a mass of inedible gristle, which I couldn't. And the malfatti di salsa al pomodoro, spinach-ricotta dumplings in a fresh tomato sauce, had a lackluster, one-dimensional quality. My interest in these dumplings expired long before I filled up on them.

The house-made desserts furnished partial redemption. Panna cotta is the trendy dessert of the moment, a wickedly rich, puddinglike confection that will send you home smiling. Be the first on your block to try it. Tiramisu, the former trendy dessert titleholder, is staggeringly intense, a creamy mocha mousse sitting on espresso-soaked ladyfingers. Chocolate silk, a mousse cake resting on a cookie-crumb crust, is very chocolaty and very heavy.  

But I couldn't get very excited about Che Bella's signature dessert, spaghetti gelato. That's because when it comes to ice cream, I'm a purist (as well as an addict). Here, ice cream is shredded in a special machine to resemble spaghetti, then covered with strawberry sauce and white chocolate shavings. Spare me the bells and whistles.

With some care and fine-tuning, Che Bella could be the upscale Camelback-corridor, Italian fine-dining spot its backers hoped for. After this promising start, it would be a pity if they settled for being merely O-Che.

Raghetti's Italian Grille, 2621 East Camelback, Phoenix, 553-0222. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 9 p.m.

Raghetti's may be an Italian restaurant, but it follows a well-known American restaurant formula: Give people enormous piles of familiar favorites, while keeping prices under control. I can accept the concept. I just wish someone had also factored cooking with a little more ethnic flair into the equation.

The place looks and operates like a cross between California Pizza Kitchen and Romano's Macaroni Grill. Check out the tile work in abstract patterns zigzagging around the big, open room. Cans of tomatoes, jars of olive oil and packages of pasta line the shelves. The young, peppy servers want to be your friends. They'll show up with a big jug of the house red. Wine drinkers are told to serve themselves, at $2.50 a glass. It's strictly the honor system. At meal's end, tell the server how many you had. One decor bonus: If you sit along the eastern side of the restaurant, you get a nice view of Camelback Mountain.

Raghetti's has a novel way, at least in this town, to distinguish itself from the pizza/pasta/chicken scaloppine pack: Dinner entrees come in two portion sizes. The "small platter" is designed for individuals. Well, perhaps, if the individual is a lumberjack or a defensive lineman. The "large platter" is meant to be shared, perhaps with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Whichever way you order, you're as likely to leave Raghetti's feeling hungry as you are to leave Dr. Kevorkian's feeling chipper.

From a purely physiological standpoint, appetizers are clearly unnecessary. If you can't wait for your entree, you can always dig into the unexceptional rosemary bread or sourdough loaf. From a financial standpoint, appetizers are also unnecessary--most starters will set you back at least eight dollars.

From a strictly taste standpoint, however, appetizers aren't a bad idea. At least, the roasted red peppers aren't. You get acres of fragrant peppers perked up with capers, garlic and anchovies, accompanied by a pleasing mix of fresh greens. The antipasto is similarly well-fashioned, groaning with the usual Italian meats, mussels, cheese, polenta and grilled veggies.

Although the entrees are overwhelming in size, they can be somewhat underwhelming in other respects. Linguini with mussels, for example, lacks the garlic, olive oil and white wine oomph the menu promises. With the rigatoni Siciliana, the proportion of ingredients is out of whack. I adore eggplant in pasta dishes, but not when it's heaped on with a shovel. By the time I polished off the rigatoni, there was still enough eggplant in my bowl to whip up a ratatouille. Pizza, meanwhile, is merely routine.

The meat dishes are a better alternative. The lamb in the lamb shank platter may have been a tad overcooked, but the fragrant Chianti braising created a bit of a spark. (Still, there's no comparing this dish with, say, the lamb shank at La Fontanella.) Veal saltimbocca also works reasonably well, thin medallions topped with prosciutto and provolone, in a light white wine sauce heavy with the scent of sage. The side of thick garlic mashed potatoes furnishes a bit of diversion.

Desserts are not for the faint-hearted. As you may have gathered, Raghetti's operating philosophy is not "less is more." The enormous eight-layer chocolate fudge cake could feed a woolly mammoth. The foursome at the next table eyed our cake and asked if it was as good as it looked. The answer: no, not really; it's more sweet than chocolaty. And if any two people can knock off the incredibly rich, anvil-heavy bread pudding, coated with a thick vanilla sauce and studded with raisins and chocolate chips, I will be glad to contact Ripley's Believe It or Not on their behalf.  

Raghetti's isn't trying to stretch any culinary frontiers. It's aimed at folks who want to be comforted, coddled and stuffed. In that respect, it's right on target.

Che Bella
Tuscan Grill & Bakery:
Polenta with Gorgonzola
$7.00
Seafood risotto
14.95
Veal chop
18.95
Panna cotta
4.50

Raghetti's Italian Grille:
Roasted red peppers
$8.95
Linguini with mussels
11.95
Veal saltimbocca
14.95
Chocolate cake
6.95


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