Tomaso's -- the elegant Italian restaurant that's charmed Valley diners for almost two decades in its original 32nd Street and Camelback location -- has set up a sister shop in the East Valley. That brings to three the number of Tomaso's in the metro-Phoenix area, all sporting the exact same menus.
There's no cause for alarm, however, because owner Tomaso Maggiore hasn't sold out to any chain operator -- he's still the man behind the meatballs at these fashionable eateries. He's merely expanding his successful operation, first moving to California, then opening Tomaso's 2000 at Scottsdale Road and Frank Lloyd Wright in Scottsdale a few years back. Three months ago, he brought us the newest Tomaso's, on Ray Road west of I-10 in Chandler.
Fortunately, as the Chandler store shows, Tomaso's expansion efforts haven't led to any compromise in quality.
Anyone who has dined at any of Maggiore's enterprises will find that the new Tomaso's looks familiar. The decor is similar to his other restaurants -- overflowing with Raphael cherubs, cute Maggiore-isms painted on the walls ("One cannot think well, love well, live well, if one has not dined well"), painted clouds and blue skies, and knickknacks that, under any other restaurateur's name, would be unforgivably tacky.
An infestation of plaster cherubs, for example, swarms from the Chandler shop's ceiling, hung on fishing line in front of the partially exposed kitchen. A giant sculpture of a man beneath is admirably anatomically correct, gazing across the room at a sculpture of two bodies entangled, one plaster, the other dipped in gold. There are two massive portraits of a grinning Maggiore, his arm cradled around his beloved mother.
Yet, such kitsch is what we've come to expect from the boisterous Maggiore, who isn't shy about utilizing romantic stories such as learning the art of Italian cookery as a child at his mother's side or toiling as a tyke at the family's restaurant in Palermo, Sicily.
There's nothing fake behind Maggiore's food, though -- it's predictable, classic, time and time again. Maggiore can open as many of his eponymous eateries as there are corners of the Valley, as far as I'm concerned.
Maggiore is no corporate Chef Boyardee, after all. A check of the Web says he's a graduate of the Culinary Institute of Rome. Rather than stunning us with gimmicks, he's stayed true to the quality ingredients, professional presentation and deft seasoning that's kept his cuisine as fresh today as it was when he opened his first Tomaso's in 1977.
One thing I'd rather not see duplicated, however, is the bar setup at the new Chandler store. Our hostess is careful to ask whether we prefer smoking or non, but what's the difference, really, when the nonsmoking section is smack against a half-wall separating us from the very smoky bar? All through dinner, evil tendrils of burning tobacco wiggle between the magnum wine bottles perched on the wall. We slink down on gold-upholstered banquettes, but can't escape.
Tomaso's robust balsamic vinegar is a good antidote against any smoky fumes, fortunately, blended with olive oil and cutting with real zing on the crusty artesian bread placed before us. It's difficult to stop munching the pillowy pieces, alternatively spread with torridly garlicky creamery butter.
The bread's good when dipped in the broth of pasta e fagioli, too, lending needed flavor to a too-light vegetable consommé thinned with extra virgin olive oil. There's simply no lustiness to the puddle of tiny tube noodles, undercooked cannellini beans and carrot slivers.
A better appetizer choice, by far, is clams casino. Four beautiful Eastern shells are stuffed with their own meat, the clam chopped and folded with crunchy pine nuts, garlic and fresh herbs. They're drizzled with olive oil and broiled to a crunchy top, smelling pleasingly of lemon when they arrive at our table. I dip my spoon in the gorgeous sauce served with the clams, tasting of more garlic and oil, then use my bread to mop up every last drop.
Terrina al caprino is another fine starter, bringing a Ferris wheel of flavors in a vertical stack of roasted red pepper, thin grilled eggplant slices, heirloom tomatoes (grown in plain dirt, as in the old days before bioengineered vegetables became commonplace), Kalamata olives, buffalo mozzarella and goat cheese on a bed of arugula. There's vinaigrette hinting at the salad's edges, I think, but my attention is riveted on what wins this year's award (so far) for the best tomato I've tasted. It's a firm, bright red, virtually seedless and full-bodied fruit.
Less dramatic, but equally satisfying, is Sarina's salad. Crunchy fresh endive and arugula are excellent, but the star is crisp fennel. Apples, walnuts and wonderfully creamy goat cheese play supporting roles under a light bath of sherry wine vinegar and walnut oil.
The star of the starters, though, is carpaccio. There's not much to this dish -- beef pounded so thin it's translucent, and squeezed with lemon. But Tomaso's beef is prime, spanning an entire plate under a flurry of capers and shaved-from-the-block Parmesan strips. The arugula splayed alongside is obviously fresh. And an accompanying caper-saffron aioli sauce is pure decadence, essentially a thin but gutsy mayonnaise.
Maggiore, back in the '70s, was one of the first restaurateurs to introduce Valley diners to homemade pasta, and to make simple spaghetti a decorator dish. Today, no self-respecting Italian eatery would dare admit serving the dried stuff (although many still do) because there is a real difference in flavor. Maggiore also was one of the first to lecture us on proper saucing -- not the bucket drenching found in so many noodle houses of the era, but light applications of fresh oils, herbs and vegetables, with just a little meat, perhaps, for richness.
Nothing has changed, with spaghetti elevated to a feast, aromatic with good semolina tones, and dressed in a restrained coat of prosciutto, mushroom and veal Ragú. I fork over an extra three bucks and add a broiled sausage, coiled in a long link of pork packed with surprising extras of chopped rapini, provolone, pecorino cheese, herbs and onion. Crisp-skinned and firm, the sausage hints of tarragon.
I'm expecting a heavier sauce with my roasted chicken, ricotta and goat cheese-stuffed ravioli, but am content with the mellow wild mushroom and olive oil blend I receive (more seasoning would be better, though -- there's not a whole lot to keep my interest in this dish). Tomaso's has saved the heavier stuff for its more assertive smoked chicken, tossing big bits of bird with rigatoni in a delicious, thick Parmigiano cream sauce.
Diners craving something sweet will find solace in eggplant tortino with butternut squash ravioli. Five pasta pockets burst with creamy, sugary squash in a smooth tomato, cream and olive oil sauce sprinkled with fresh herbs, nestled up to a slab of firm eggplant draped with soft mozzarella. Lobster ravioli and scampi is another confection-touched treat, given the sweet character of the seafood. There's a lot of lobster let loose here, studded with chopped asparagus and red pepper. Two full strips of asparagus lend a nice crunch next to the enormous, lemony prawns sautéed with mushrooms in a white wine, lemon and butter sauce.
My new favorite pasta, though, is Tomaso's four cheese agnolotti. What a pretty plate, the half moon-shaped ravioli striped in green and yellow pastas, and bloated with mascarpone, fontina, Parmigiano and Sardinian ricotta. It's available as an entree, but I like it served alongside excellent veal parmigiana, the meat pounded thin in a chunky tomato purée.
Meat lovers don't miss out, either, with two of my picks including medaglioni alla pizzaiola; and Sicilian feast day braciole. Medaglioni is a fancy name for buttery tender filet mignon, seared to a little less than our requested medium-rare, stocked with wild mushrooms sautéed with garlic and tomatoes, and topped with robiola cheese. Braciole, meanwhile, is a hefty pork tenderloin stuffed with provolone, toasted pine nuts and currants in a prosciutto, tomato and herb sauce. The pork has been so finely pounded it cuts almost like ham, while simple potato gnocchi served alongside are delightful, slippery and firm specimens.
Will Tomaso's take over the rest of the Valley? It could happen, and that would be just fine with me. There are plenty of neighborhoods that deserve so much better than just another corporate "Spaghetti 'R' Us" Italian experience. And Maggiore might be just the man to do it.
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