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PASTA PRO BUONO

I'm happy.
I have found two restaurants I like.
Both are Italian. Both are trattorias. Both are places to inscribe in your Rolodexes pronto. Preferably with indelible ink.

But first, some of you may wish to know, what is a trattoria? Is it any different than a "regular" Italian restaurant?

Well, yes and no.
In this country, the trattoria, like the French bistro, has become something of a fad. Both began to appear with greater frequency sometime after the stock market nose-dived in 1987. Coincidence? No, no more than the re-emergence of the blue-plate special at about the same time.

You see, trattorias and bistros are meant to be casual, inviting eateries serving uncomplicated, seasonally inspired food. The environment is informal. You can eat what you want, big meal or simple subsistence, without worrying about the "rules"--or the bill. Of course, if it is your objective to spend a lot of money, this is possible, too. The trattoria and bistro are nothing if not accommodating.

My dining accomplice and I stroll into Avanti Trattoria at the Pointe, at the Pointe at Squaw Peak, during its newly announced "sunset dining" hours. From 5 to 7 p.m. Sunday through Friday, diners may enjoy soup or salad, a choice of three entrees, dessert, and coffee or tea for $12.95, excluding tax and gratuity. We are not sure whether we will partake of this bargain offer, but we at least want to be able to think about it.

Surprisingly, we are nearly alone in this attractive room with a view. We remain so until the trickle of customers begins to flow more steadily at the magic hour of 7 p.m. As the sunset doesn't kick into full gear until 7:30, perhaps during the summer months the early dining special should be renamed. The look of Avanti Trattoria is modern and appealing. Cream-colored walls provide a soothing balance to the plum, mauve and teal booths and the stylish turquoise-and-eggplant chairs. The views are multiple: You can look south over leafy treetops to the skyscrapers of downtown Phoenix, or north to the craggy peak behind the restaurant.

To reach the trattoria, diners must walk up several flights of stairs from the parking lot in an unavoidable aerobic workout; a few diners are breathing hard when they sit down. But an outside elevator is being built to solve this problem.

The menu's moderate prices and tempting offerings quickly convince me to order a la carte. Appetizers max out at $6.95, pasta dishes cost $10.50 or less, entrees range from $10.95 to $15.95. I feel encouraged. I am hungry. I want to taste it all.

One thing I've noticed about Italian restaurants: The staff really admires good eaters (read: "gluttons"). I never feel embarrassed ordering a lot because everyone appears complimented. They are thrilled when I go on to order dessert, and openly praise my healthy appetite. They do not even mind that part of each dish must be boxed up for me to take home. They respect my efforts.

Which is good, because portions are plentiful at Avanti. We discover this when our delicious appetizers arrive. The gamberetti marinati is a generous quantity of medium-size shrimp, grilled and marinated in lime and mint and served with cubes of feta cheese. It is stunningly good, and reminiscent of both Thai and Mediterranean cuisine. I'm also pleased with the assaggio Toscano, which features fresh mozzarella, dark imported prosciutto, toasted bread and sliced tomato, garnished with radicchio and butter lettuce.

Of our salads, I prefer the tricolored mixture of endive, arugula and radicchio over the good, but standard, caesar salad. The tricolore is tossed with a delicate dressing of balsamic vinegar and olive oil and sprinkled with flakes of baked goat cheese--a killer touch, like a quick one-two to the salivary glands. Avanti Trattoria's service is excellent. Our waiter and busperson are both topnotch, anticipating our every need with alacrity and good humor. Their attentiveness does not flag as the tables around us fill up.

When our entrees are placed before us, I'll admit I'm envious of my dining accomplice's Mediterranean chicken. My grilled sausages and polenta look boring in comparison. Well, one bite and I stop my whining. The mesquite-grilled, fennel-flavored whole sausages are marvelous--the best I've eaten in Phoenix--and the grilled square of cornmeal bread proves moist, dense and satisfying. Fresh spinach steamed with onion is the perfect vegetable accompaniment. A dollop of fresh tomato sauce rounds out the plate with color and flavor.

The pollo Mediterraneo also turns out to be quite tasty. Accompanied by mildly spiced saffron couscous and delicious, buttered whole green beans, the chicken is tender, and seasoned with tomato and green pepper. But I'm not sorry I chose the sausages, not at all.

Dessert here is no trifling matter. We sample the creme brulee and a vanilla tartuffo rolled in white chocolate. Both are, sigh, divine.

For fantastic food with a view, I urge you to visit Avanti Trattoria at the Pointe. This is the kind of Italian restaurant we need more of in Phoenix.

Franco's Trattoria is placed second in this review because 1) it's not new, and 2) the restaurant is closed until September 4. I don't want to get you too excited.

Because I am. I adore Franco's. On a visit earlier this summer, my accomplice and I gorged ourselves with antipasto, salad, pasta, meat and dessert. By Roman standards, it was an orgy of mild proportions, but it's one I won't soon forget.

For many of you, Franco's needs no introduction. This small McCormick Ranch restaurant is so popular that reservations are essential--a rarity in Phoenix. It is not cheap, but then chef Franco Fazzuoli uses the finest fresh ingredients in his cucina Fiorentina and places a traditional Tuscan emphasis on meats flavorfully grilled with rosemary. In a word, Franco's is a place to dine well without a lot of fuss. You can dress up if you wish, but it's not required.

The decor is simple: dark, cushy booths and white tablecloths. The male and female waitpersons are attentive and intelligent. They educate and inform new customers without condescension or pretension. They are also avid devotees of Franco's cooking. When our waiter admires our ability to eat, I ask him how he can work here and stay so thin. His hand moves reflexively to his stomach. "I run ten miles a day," he confesses. "I have to, or I'd be huge."

I am wildly pleased with everything we sample. The bocconcini al forno is a melange of tastes: fresh sweet mozzarella wrapped in thin-sliced prosciutto and nestled in a peppery leaf of radicchio. Franco's tricolore is first-rate, but his panzanella, an olive-oil-and-vinegar-soaked salad of bread, plum tomatoes and basil . . . now this is something I want to replicate at home. Who would ever guess such a sensational salad began as an inspired use for day-old bread?

Because a couple of pasta dishes sound too good to pass up, my dining accomplice and I request half-orders in addition to our entrees. I imagine that we will take a bite or two and wrap it up for home consumption. I am wrong. Once we taste the penne with shrimp and radicchio in its delicate cream-and-tomato sauce, and the squash-filled tortelloni floating in a heavenly sauce of mascarpone cheese flecked with almonds, there is no turning back. We are compelled to join the clean-plate club. Our mothers would be so proud.

The purest testimony to the excellence of Franco's cooking is how much I consume on the premises. I eat and eat and eat, savoring each bite. Both the rosemary-seasoned fillet of beef and the hearty chicken contadina with grilled peppers and sausage are striking. And for dessert, it would be hard to top the chocolate fredo (raspberries and chocolate mousse) or the cakelike tiramisu. I visited my first trattoria in 1964, in Naples, Italy. It was a jolly place: steamy, noisy and filled with fantastic smells. The food surprised me. The pizza--if you could call it that--wasn't red, and there were anchovies concealed under bubbles in its crust. The minestrone was beige and thick and didn't look anything like Campbell's.

I was 8 years old. And despite those sneaky anchovies, it was love at first sight.

Now, too-many-years-to-think-about later, Avanti Trattoria and Franco's Trattoria make it possible for me to continue my romance on this continent. They may be fancier than those I knew as a child, but you know what? I think I can adjust.

Avanti Trattoria at the Pointe, the Pointe at Squaw Peak, 7677 North 16th Street, Phoenix, 944-4445. Hours: 5 to 10 p.m., Sunday through Thursday; 5 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday.

Franco's Trattoria, 9619 North Hayden, Scottsdale, 948-6655. Hours: 5 to 10 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Closed for vacation August 4 until September 3, 1991.

anywhere

The trattoria, like the French bistro, has become something of a fad. Both began to appear after the stock market nose-dived in 1987.

avanti

The mesquite-grilled, fennel-flavored whole sausages are marvelous--the best I've eaten in Phoenix.

We sample the creme brulee and a vanilla tartuffo rolled in white chocolate. Both are, sigh, divine.

franco's

His hand moves reflexively to his stomach. "I run ten miles a day," he confesses. "I have to, or I'd be huge."

Once we taste the penne with shrimp and radicchio, there is no turning back. We are compelled to join the clean-plate club.


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