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PASTA AND ANTI-PASTA

I've been thinking about Perry Como lately. Specifically, I've been thinking about his song "Catch a Falling Star." If you're unaware of Como's scintillating 1958 hit, the idea conveyed in the song is "Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket" . . . something, something . . . "never let it go." While I like this idea of treasuring an unexpected gift, I question that it has to be a falling star. Falling connotes decline. I prefer catch a rising star, but this expression just makes me think of the New York club where rock chanteuse Pat Benatar was discovered.

Anyway, you grasp the concept. Como's song is about identifying something good and not letting it get away. Which is exactly how I feel about Nina L'Italiana Ristorante. Only if ever there was a rising star, Nina Vincenti, veteran pasta maker and restaurateur, is certainly one.

Born and raised in Foggia, a small town in southern Italy, Nina has worked stints at Prego, Allegro, Avanti, and Tomaso's. Most recently she had her own restaurant called Nina's Genuine Pasta House in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The opportunity to open a restaurant with her children, Deborah and Robert Mattsson, lured Nina back to Phoenix.

You and I are the lucky beneficiaries of these family ties.
The menu changes daily. Typically, Nina L'Italiana offers eight to ten entrees, ranging in price from $10.95 to $19.95. Nina herself makes pasta for two or three dishes a night. Pasta too plebeian for you? Nonsense. Nina's pasta is heavenly. She turns mundane manicotti into manmade manna and tired tortellini into transcendental taste treats.

And her seasonings are positively celestial. I sample linguini with clams and mussels here that tastes better than seafood; it tastes like the sea. Spicy, bacon-flavored amatriciana sauce ladled over the thick-shelled, hollow pasta called bucatini makes this hard-to-handle dish well worth the effort. Even a simple olive oil-red vinegar salad dressing turns holy in Nina's hands.

The look of the restaurant is surprising. Contrary to expectations, this is no dark-wooded den dripping with Old World opulence. No, Nina L'Italiana is housed in a former nightclub, the ill-fated Palm Paradise Rum Company, in the Laguna Palms Shopping Center on Bell Road. This knowledge helps make sense of the restaurant's unusual design and layout, which can initially strike one as odd.

For example, the first thing you see upon entering Nina L'Italiana is a square, island-style bar. Not an exceptional sight in a nightclub, but a little unusual for a "nice" Italian restaurant. An elevated nonsmoking section circles the bar and is separated from it by a half-wall partition. Smoking patrons sit in a ground-level area delineated by a trellis.

There are other things that might give you pause. Why, for instance, are disposable-toothbrush vending machines installed in the rest rooms? Why is there a neon palm tree in the round turret window outside? Why are some tables positioned against long mirrors which allow for discreet glances at the crowd or your dining accomplice? Is it so you can examine your teeth to see if you should go buy a toothbrush?

Yeah, you know the answer. But this white-and-teal room, with its alternating Nagels, Renoir prints and family portraits, does need a little explaining. The good thing is you don't have to dress up to feel comfortable here, but you won't feel out of place if you do.

Waiters are formally attired in black trousers, white shirts and turquoise bow ties and cummerbunds. The staff works well together. Water glasses are wordlessly refilled, plates are removed promptly, bread is brought with no delay. Italian is the language of choice, which I find incredibly charming. Call me a sucker for Romance languages. Go ahead, I dare you.

The truth is, there is little here I don't like. Garlic bread is hot, buttered and topped with bits of garlic, red pepper and basil. House salads are a marvelous mix of fresh romaine, arugula, and green- and red-leaf lettuce.

In the realm of appetizers, an antipasto for two is a splendid spread of salami, mortadella, prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, roasted peppers, Parmesan, black olives, turkey--and hearts of palm, if you're lucky. The antipasto also includes the sweetest cantaloupe I have tasted in several years. In fact, if cantaloupe is in season, you might consider ordering melon and prosciutto as an appetizer. Or if the antipasto sounds like too much of a good thing and you like fresh mozzarella, order the mozzarella with fresh basil on plum tomatoes. You can't go wrong with any of these options.

Desserts also change daily. They are exceptional and a bona fide bargain at $3.25 each. In particular, Nina's tiramisu in a glass is terrific. Her version is nearly liquid, topped with chocolate shavings and flavored with brandy and espresso. I also like the rich three-layers-of-chocolate B-52 cake, the dark chocolate tartuffo, and zuppa inglese--a custard confection with just enough chocolate and cherry layering to satisfy the most jaded sweet tooth.

Personal attention and family pride make Nina L'Italiana a special place. When we enter the restaurant for our second visit, we are recognized as repeat customers and warmly welcomed back. Near the end of every meal, Nina leaves the kitchen to see how her patrons enjoyed her food. When she spots a takeout container half-filled with tortellini on our table, she says, "Ah, you'll have a nice lunch tomorrow." She is right.

After dinner we are brought glasses of flaming sambuca, on the house.
Perry Como can catch all the falling stars he wants. Nina L'Italiana is one of those rare restaurants I'd like to stick in my neighborhood and make sure it never goes out of business.

Same difference.

On paper, Bella Pasta appears to have a lot in common with Nina L'Italiana. Both are new, both are Italian, both are family-run, both have formally attired waiters. But this, unfortunately, is where all similarities end.

If Nina L'Italiana is ecstasy, Bella Pasta is agony.
The location on Main Street in Mesa that houses this restaurant has been a zillion things. Most recently, it housed a decent Indian restaurant. The Bonacci family members obviously have put time and love into the ornate hearts-and-flowers interior of Bella Pasta. They've installed mirrors, lights, pink trim, silk roses, Italian music and swans. But all this effort does is confuse the customer--or me, anyway.

Here you've got a waiter in bow tie and cummerbund, but most items on the menu cost $8.95 or less. What gives? Is Bella Pasta trying to be a fancy alternative to Olive Garden and Spaghetti Bowl? Or is it simply giving mixed messages?

Whatever the case, the food is laughably poor. My "baked spinach ziti" is so overcooked it breaks before I can lift it out of the bowl with my fork. The (cold) garlic bread resembles giant croutons; it rips the roof of my mouth. The antipasto for two should be renamed "Italian chef salad." It's simply iceberg lettuce topped with slivers of commonplace salami, ham and grated mozzarella. Ice is crystallized inside the salad's black olives. I could make it at home with ingredients already in my refrigerator, you know what I mean?

The chicken saltimbocca doesn't "jump in your mouth." I wish it would jump back in the oven. Like most of the food here, it is barely lukewarm. The fettucine served with it is drenched with a sickly sweet Alfredo sauce.

And what can I say about the side of spaghetti alla arrabiatta? I could say it's a miracle the spaghetti is in the neighborhood of al dente. Sadly, the sauce is very spicy without any distinguishable flavors.

I could go on, but I won't. The aspiring upscale decor in this restaurant won't fool anyone for long. There's nothing bella about this pasta.

Nina L'Italiana Ristorante, 3625 East Bell Road, Phoenix, 482-6167. Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; Brunch, 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Sunday; closed Monday.

Bella Pasta, 1724 West Main, Mesa, 464-5472. Hours: 5 to 10 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; closed Sunday and Monday.

for nina l'italiana

Even a simple olive oil-
red vinegar salad dressing turns holy in Nina's hands.

for bella pasta

The antipasto for two should be renamed "Italian chef salad.


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