Just when you thought the intersection of 40th Street and Campbell couldn't get any more mobbed, along comes radioMILANO, the latest hotspot from LGO Hospitality (the folks behind Postino, La Grande Orange, and Chelsea's Kitchen). Imagine a cocktail-centric Postino with the frenetic, open-kitchen buzz of La Grande Orange, and then turn up the volume.
Needless to say, the place is an instant hit. It opened its doors early last month in the 1950s building that used to house Pronto and it's been packed ever since. LGO Hospitality seems to have the Midas touch of good taste in Phoenix. And while I liked radioMILANO just fine, I bet I'll be even happier in a few months, when the kinks have inevitably been worked out by Craig DeMarco and his ever-expanding team.
By now, I'm well-versed in the drill for hipster spots in that neighborhood, whether it's for a weeknight nosh or Sunday brunch: Expect a crowd, don't wear stilettos unless you plan to valet your car (you may not have a choice, anyway), and bring money. I've already trained myself to steer clear of the area during the busiest times of day. Still, I had to throw myself into the fray to see how radioMILANO was handling the attention.
radioMILANO, 3950 East Campbell Street
Celery caesar salad: $9
Saut�ed clams: $15
Chocolate budino: $7
Hours: Daily, 5 to 11 p.m.
When the place is rockin', it's quite a sight to see people huddled at the tiny bar near the front door, a cocktail-sipping crowd waiting around communal tables in the middle, and folks perched on midcentury-inspired seats around the rest of the space, digging into dinner. There's not much in the way of artwork on the gray block walls, just a few framed retro prints and a slim mirror along one side of the room. (On the way to the bathroom, though, there's a signed and numbered Sex Pistols poster that I covet.) Thanks mostly to candlelight, and some subtle track lighting along the arched, wood-paneled ceilings, everyone's cast in a flattering, golden glow.
Of course, the kitchen is fully illuminated, and the fast-paced action a whole team of young chefs dressed in white, grilling and sautéing their way through controlled chaos is mesmerizing to watch. Relaxing, even. But good luck snagging a drink while you're waiting. On a few visits to radioMILANO, I'd practically memorized the drink list before I could actually flag down someone to order a cocktail. During prime dining hours, the servers are so slammed they're almost sprinting across the room.
It's just as well. At ten bucks apiece, the cocktails sure add up quickly. And this time of year, it's hard to nurse a cold, refreshing drink. The bar makes some decent ones I tried the "cane salato," with vodka, fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice, and a salted rim; the "Radio Limoncello," a sweet, citrusy martini; and the "ginger press," a perky concoction of vodka, housemade ginger ale, and lemon juice. There are a dozen wines by the bottle or by the glass, as well as a handful of beers.
As you might guess from the name, radioMILANO has an Italian-influenced menu, with a fresh pasta of the day, a few light seafood dishes, and a nice vegetable antipasti plate. But as one of my friends pointed out, it's also got some serious '70s nostalgia. Warm, just-fried chips with dip, deviled eggs, roasted artichoke with breadcrumbs and a side of Green Goddess dressing it's like a potluck in the rec room.
A little confusing, yes, but tasty all the same.
Slices of soft focaccia, with light char marks and the scent of a wood-fired grill, tasted great with extra-virgin olive oil, fresh grated parmesan, and whole roasted cloves of garlic that were fun to dig out of the bulb. Celery caesar salad was an intriguing tweak on a classic, while the tricolore salad was a crunchy, appealing jumble of chopped romaine lettuce, radicchio, cilantro, green olives, julienned carrots, pine nuts, and fried chick peas. I bet they'd sell more of them if they added a menu description.
Sautéed clams were well-prepared, but an extra piece of grilled bread would've been nice to soak up every last drop of savory, herb-flecked broth. Lightly pan-crisped halibut had a buttery texture and was served with sweet roasted cherry tomatoes and sautéed garlic spinach. The juicy New York strip steak was also perfectly cooked, with a flavorful seared crust.
One night, the special was crudo, with slices of raw snapper, ripe mango, Italian parsley, and slivers of red jalapeño very nice. I'd order that again if it were on the menu. And one thing I will definitely go back for is the polpetone, a piece of moist, chunky Italian meatloaf, made with veal and wild mushrooms. It's hard to expect much from meatloaf, but surprisingly, this was one of the best things I tried here.
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For dessert, the rich, creamy chocolate budino (pudding) tasted heavenly with a warm blob of brûléed meringue on top. I was indifferent about the Neapolitan ice cream, with layers of chocolate, cherry and pistachio why bother when Arlecchino's practically next door? But the moist olive oil cake was delicious, served with cool thickened cream and a glob of blackberry jam.
The overarching concept at radioMILANO is sharable small plates all the items I just described, except the desserts, are listed as "appetizing entrees." And if you're in the mood for some light nibbles to go along with your cocktails, that's fine. But be prepared for portion sizes that are all over the place, in terms of sharing. Two people will have a much easier time than three or more people trying to divvy up some of these petite dishes.
As a result, dinner at radioMILANO is much pricier than it looks because you'll need to order at least two items apiece to make it out the door without a rumbling stomach. Dinner at Postino, right across the street, seems cheap in comparison, with that awesome bruschetta and substantial, entree-sized salads. Here, I'm hung up on the $12 "meatballs with some spaghetti," which is, literally, three meatballs and a few strands of pasta. How in the world anyone can share that with dignity is beyond me. (I do have a sense of humor, and spaghetti makes a cheeky garnish, but for that amount of money, the joke's on me for ordering it.)
Don't get me wrong. I think this restaurant is a fine addition to the neighborhood mix. But for the moment, radioMILANO still needs some fine-tuning.