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O Soul Mio

Southern Italy: Cuisines collide at Edward's soul cucina.
Lokey

Edward's of Scottsdale, 9619 North Hayden (Mountain View Plaza), Scottsdale, 480-9223567. Hours: Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 5 p.m. to close.

"There is no new thing under the sun," according to Ecclesiastes. So much for unerring Biblical certainty.

Obviously, the man has never been to Scottsdale. How else can you explain Edward's, a new restaurant that even the Good Book's prophets and wise men couldn't anticipate?

The press release says it all: Edward's is "the only African American-owned upscale restaurant in the Valley serving exquisite Southern U.S.A. and Northern Italian cuisine."

When I first read this, I rubbed my eyes with disbelief. For a few anxious moments, I feared some dreaded form of "fusion" cooking. I cringed, imagining the likes of Southern-fried lasagna, pork chop parmigiana and fettuccine alla chitterlings.

Fortunately, the marriage between Northern Italian and Southern U.S.A. cooking is never consummated. Instead, the two cuisines simply co-habit chastely, side-by-side, on Edward's bill of fare.

That means that on one part of the menu you'll find crab cakes, collard greens and sweet-potato pie. On the other, there's carpaccio, veal Marsala and tiramisu.

How did this unlikely pairing come about? The owner had operated a Southern-style restaurant back East. When he decided to open a place here, he took over a location that had housed three Italian restaurants over the past decade: Franco's Trattoria, Va Bene and, most recently, Il Palio. Impressed with Il Palio's chef, Edward's owner kept him on, teaching him how to batter a catfish, candy a yam and whip up a peach cobbler. Lawdy mama mia -- only in America.

While the concept is wacky, Edward's turns out to be a fun, casual place to eat. It's true that neither the down-home platters nor the Italian dishes do anything to advance the culinary arts. You also won't find any of our town's hip, pony-tailed, cell-phoned trendoids here -- the patrons are sedate folks who enjoy a quiet, relaxed dinner. But Edward's has genuine charm, the kind that should resonate with neighborhood types turned off by $25 entrees and Scottsdale glitz.

This storefront hasn't changed much over the years. It's still very small. Edward's continues to get mileage out of photos of Italy hung by the three previous tenants. Black leatherette booths still ring the room. The tables are covered with linen, while an overflowing bowl of silk flowers by the entrance adds a note of color and elegance. One new touch: Jerry Lewis, golfer Tom Lehman and one of the Drifters have scrawled their testimonials and signatures on the whitewashed walls.

A basket of good French bread takes care of immediate hunger pangs. A cruet of olive oil and a bowl of grated cheese enable you to fashion your own dip.

But you may be better off paying for the outstanding bruschetta. Is it the fresh summer tomatoes? Is it the heap of garlic and spices? Who knows? We could do only so much analyzing before the bruschetta swiftly disappeared from view.

The other Italian starters aren't quite as appealing. Shrimp scampi brings five medium-size crustaceans, done up in olive oil, wine and garlic. They're tasty enough, but the $8.95 tag seems a bit steep. Carpaccio, thinly sliced raw beef drizzled with olive oil and lemon, is scrumptious. But the kitchen doesn't top it with traditional reggiano-parmigiano cheese, instead using an inferior variety. The plate was also compromised by greens several days past their prime. In the restaurant business, like everything else, the devil is in the details, and the carpaccio's cheese and salad details definitely need attention.

The Italian soup, stracciatella, would benefit from a little less seasoning attention. It's an Italian version of Chinese egg drop soup, zipped up with parsley. But an overdose of salt kept it from reaching full potential.

A couple of Southern starters suggest that the chef is a quick learner. Louisiana sweet sausage turns out to be kielbasa smoothed with a brown sugar sauce, served over rice. What can be bad? The hearty gumbo, a thick mix of chicken, sausage, shrimp and rice, somehow manages to be mild and flavorful at the same time.

You'd expect the kitchen to be at the top of its form with the Italian entrees. Though nothing is really memorable, I think most folks will be satisfied.

Take the rigatoni pollo affumicato, pasta tossed with smoked chicken and mushrooms in a rich cream sauce. This dish is earthy, intense and filling. Another pasta platter, linguini with shrimp in a diavola sauce, also hits the mark. It comes with eight firm shrimp, and the not-too-spicy diavola still sports enough of a cayenne snap to get your attention.

Two veal dishes display similar vigor. Vitello alla veneta is quite good, veal medallions moistened in a lovely lemon wine sauce and boosted by garlic, capers and a bit of artichoke. A side of spaghetti, in a light sauce festooned with diced tomatoes, only adds to the pleasure. Veal Marsala is also full of big flavors, courtesy of sautéed wild mushrooms and the fortified Sicilian wine.

But when I return to Edward's, it won't be for the Italian fare. After all, there are scores of restaurants in this tony zip code offering commendable pasta and veal dishes. On the other hand, in this neighborhood you have as much chance running across soul-inspired food as you do stumbling on a Kwanzaa block party.

Crab cakes are first-rate, two plump, skillet-fried beauties that actually taste like they're made from genuine crab. What are called barbecue ribs don't resemble what you get in a rib parlor -- there's no smoky scent or grilled char. Instead, these bones are braised until the meat can no longer hang on. Sure, the pork is a bit fatty, but it's also wonderfully juicy and succulent. And, after all, obsessing over fat grams while eating soul food is like bemoaning the evils of gambling while checking into your room at Caesars Palace. If you can't stop worrying about calories, cholesterol and the nutritional pyramid for even one meal, you shouldn't come to Edward's in the first place.

The way the chef handles catfish, you'd think he grew up plucking a banjo and rafting the Mississippi. It's an impressive filleted slab, dusted in cornmeal and pan-fried to moist, crispy perfection. If you've been overdosing on ahi tuna and salmon the last few years, this catfish makes a nice change of pace.

The one home-style entree that can't quite keep up is the ham. It's covered in what tastes like the same finger-lickin' brown sugar sauce that coats the appetizer sausage. But even the sauce, plus thin-slicing, couldn't hide the ham's too-chewy quality.

The chef has got most of the Southern side dishes down pat, too. Entrees from the Dixie part of the menu come with a choice of two, and it's not easy to choose. Pass up the coleslaw and rice, which have no trace of regional flair. But you'll have a difficult time deciding among the cheese-draped macaroni; the bacon-flecked, butter-drenched green beans; the crunchy candied yams; and the luscious collard greens. The kitchen ought to consider putting together a main-dish plate of just these four sides.

(Want some collard greens or candied yams with your Italian dinner? Just ask -- the night we did, the eager-to-please proprietor brought some over, gratis.)

A couple of desserts make lingering fun. The tiramisu is extremely well-crafted, rich and creamy. The peach cobbler doesn't look very elegant -- it's served in a soup bowl -- but there's no quarreling with the taste. It's appropriately gloppy, not too sweet, and with just enough pastry crust to keep it all interesting. The lackluster sweet-potato pie, however, can't compete with the models you find in the Valley's lower-rent districts.

Even apart from its oddball menu, Edward's is the kind of place that you don't see much of anymore in Scottsdale. It's low-key, charmingly unpretentious and friendly, in a neighborly sort of way. There's nothing cutting edge about either its low-voltage clientele or the Italian/Southern U.S.A. comfort food. And with entrees topping out at $16.95, you don't need to huddle with your accountant to see if you can afford to eat here.

So check your fears at the door. Sometimes, you have to stop and smell the collard greens and veal Marsala.


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