Mondo Carne

Bistecca, 7014 East Camelback (Scottsdale Fashion Square), Scottsdale, 481-7800. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.

Kids scan the skies for Santa Claus. Mountain climbers keep an eye out for Sasquatch. Divers hope to spot the Loch Ness Monster.

Me? I've been on the lookout for a first-rate, moderately priced steak house. But I haven't had much luck.

Steak houses are probably the 1990s' hottest restaurant segment. That may seem odd--after all, calorie- and cholesterol-obsessed Americans consume only half as much beef as they did a generation ago. But we compensate by ordering steak when we eat out, a Saturday-night reward for our virtuous chicken-fish-salad restraint the rest of the week.

Unfortunately, outstanding beef isn't cheap. A high-end filet, sirloin, rib eye or porterhouse ranges from $25 to $35 at top Valley steak houses, not a range most folks can feel at home on.

I've tried finessing the cost by opting for quality over frequency: I'd rather have a great $30 steak twice a year than a so-so $20 steak every four months.

If I ever came across a steak house whose $20 beef could compete with a $30 prime-grade slab, I'd be forced to recalculate my cost analysis. Experience, though, has made me skeptical about such a discovery. After eating in dozens of forgettable moderately priced steak joints over the years, I figured I had a better shot of coming across the Tooth Fairy.

At least, that's what I thought until I discovered Bistecca. By ordering judiciously, quality-minded carnivores can rip into topnotch animal protein, without taking out a home-equity loan.

Opened in October, Bistecca was developed by a California restaurant group that's also behind such Bay Area hits as Fog City Diner, Mustards Grill and Betelnut. If this Bistecca works out--the Fashion Square unit is the first--the company plans to roll out Bisteccas all over America. I say: Let the good times roll.

The design is well-thought-through. Bistecca is casually elegant, in a Scottsdale sort of way. That means an open kitchen, where diners can watch the action taking place beneath the striking, copper-hooded grill. It means thick white linen and hefty cutlery on the table, vaguely abstract art on the walls and colorful floral arrangements around the room. The annoyingly loud music, however, seems seriously out of place, especially since the place is already noisily abuzz with good-time chatter and clatter. On one particularly busy Friday-night visit, I had to take some deep breaths and chant several "Omms" to calm myself down.

The concept is tightly focused. Despite the name--Bistecca is Italian for "beef steak"--by no stretch of the imagination is this an Italian restaurant. But the name does prepare you for the Italian touches, which, along with the high-quality fare, help distinguish Bistecca from the rest of the steak-house pack.

The execution is just about as polished as the concept, except for a few remediable glitches. Among them are the unworthy dips accompanying the wonderful Italian bread. On one visit, it was an off-putting spicy oil-and-vinegar blend. On another, it was inferior olive oil.

However, there's very little unworthy about the appetizers. I'd go so far as to say that the crispy roasted polenta, draped in a dreamy wild mushroom sauce, is one of the best things I've put my lips around this year. Starter salads are outstanding. Full-flavored red and yellow teardrop tomatoes belie the season, and they're temptingly paired with lightly fried strips of red onion and a sprinkling of blue cheese. The suave Belgian endive salad is touched up with apples, candied walnuts and blue cheese. But I have a quibble with the decision to use made-in-America prosciutto, which comes teamed with pear and arugula. This ham is not in the same league as the best Italian models.

Even though the menu offers a few seafood and pasta alternatives for your group's non-beef-eater, make no mistake: Bistecca deals in meat, especially beef. Some of it is terrific; all of it gives you your money's worth.

There are four cuts of beef: porterhouse, rib eye, filet mignon and New York sirloin strip. Both the porterhouse and rib eye are served for two. That means you shouldn't come here alone--they're what Bistecca does best.

The kitchen uses a porterhouse for its bistecca alla Fiorentina, Tuscany's classic steak dish. It's 32 ounces of sizzling, bone-in, beefy perfection, rolled up on a cart and carved tableside. Part of the Bistecca shtick is the option of having it coated one of four ways: with sea salt; wild oregano; grilled lemon and parsley; or balsamic vinegar. I'm not sure it needs any boost at all. And don't forget to ask the server to wrap up the bone, so your "dog" will have something wonderful to gnaw on later.

The huge rib eye, also set on a bone, looks like it came from a mastodon. It's as remarkable as the porterhouse. When rib eye is good, no other cut can beat its combination of tenderness, flavor and texture. Bistecca's rib eye is not only good, it's real good.

One problem: We ordered the steak medium, and it arrived blood-red rare. Naturally, the server rushed it back to the kitchen for more grilling. But a serious steak house shouldn't need two cracks to get a steak cooked right. Let's hope time will work out this grilling kink.

The two other beef options are commendable, if not quite in the porterhouse and rib eye class. You won't find a better $16.95 12-ounce filet mignon in town. You will, however, find a better $28 12-ounce filet mignon. But if you can put the more expensive models out of your mind, you'll get deep, budget-priced satisfaction. At $21.95, the 16-ounce New York steak doesn't offer quite as much value. It has no overt defects, but the overwhelming beefy explosiveness that defines the best sirloin is missing here.

If steak doesn't turn you on, the veal chop alla Milanese will. It could have come from a fine Italian restaurant: a beautiful, tender chop, dipped in batter, freshly fried to a golden, buttery sheen and lined with tomato, basil and garlic. Rack of lamb is also well-crafted, sprinkled with olives and tinged with the Mediterranean scents of garlic and rosemary.

One way Bistecca keeps meat prices around the $20 mark is by charging for side dishes. The only things that come with the entrees here are a knife and fork. But some of these $3.95 sides are definitely worth the splurge--and they're big enough to share, too.

That's certainly true for the wonderful mashed potatoes, whipped up with Parmesan cheese. Thin, crispy haystack potatoes go great with steak. So do exotic, mint-tinged cippolini onions, roasted mushrooms and sauteed spinach invigorated with lemon and garlic.

Desserts are impressive. The torta cremosa suggests a pastry chef with some imagination: It's mascarpone cheesecake, adorned with bits of tangerine and tangerine peel. The rich chocolate torte is chocolatey but not overly sweet. The panna cotta, an Italian version of creme brulee, here sports an appealing lemony tang. And the apple tart doused with caramel sauce is a potent way to finish up the meal.

Bistecca seems to have figured out all the angles: good meat, in a nice setting, at reasonable prices. A smartly assembled wine list, with several excellent Italian and California reds for about $25, adds to its charms. If you crave quality steak, but don't have a company expense account, a six-figure inheritance or 10,000 shares of Microsoft to feed your passion at Morton's, Ruth's Chris, Harris' or The Grill at the TPC, don't despair: Bistecca is your high steaks alternative.

Belgian endive salad
Rib eye (for two)
Porterhouse (for two)
Torta cremosa

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