Penne for Your Thoughts

Il Forno, 4225 East Camelback, Phoenix, 952-1522. Hours: Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

Someone once said God must love poor people--after all, He made so many of them.

Well, I'd say that God must love going out to Italian restaurants, at least when He visits the Valley. Why else would there be so many of them?

Should He stop in at swanky Il Forno, the proprietor can await the Day of Judgment with perfect confidence. The fare here is consistently first-rate, and, at times, almost divine. However, noting the $10 appetizers and $20-plus entrees, I'd advise God, and everyone else, to make sure they come with sufficient funds.

The restaurant's strip-mall setting doesn't do justice to one of the smartest-looking interiors in town. This place is striking, all gleaming, burnished cherry wood (you'll want to run your hands across it) and sleek, shiny mirrors. Eye-catching prints and piped-in jazz and classical music furnish tasteful visual and aural background. The three small dining areas offer intimacy and a refuge from the usual restaurant clatter. Whoever designed Il Forno knows something about casual, understated elegance.

Whoever labeled the menu "contemporary Italian cuisine," however, stretches credulity almost past the breaking point. Since when are appetizers like carpaccio, caprese, steamed mussels and fried calamari contemporary? What's hip about pasta al pesto or linguini with clam sauce? The only way you might imagine veal marsala, pollo alla Milanese and seafood stew are cutting-edge entrees is if you've just awakened from a 30-year nap. Tiramisu and creme brulee, meanwhile, are about as trendy as Nehru jackets and beehive hairdos.

The labeling may be suspect, but the food itself isn't. This is a practiced, assured kitchen, one that sweats the details.

You get an immediate inkling from the bread, a fresh, crusty loaf. You achieve certainty once you've sampled the appetizers.

Caprese is a reliable test of a kitchen's commitment to quality. There's nothing remotely complex about it--fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, a touch of basil, all drizzled with olive oil. You don't need a degree from a culinary institute to put this together properly. You just need good ingredients.

Il Forno has them--moist, creamy, imported buffalo-milk mozzarella, ripe tomato that tasted like it was just pulled from the vine, and fresh basil. You don't get too many bites from this $9 plate, but the ones you get are wonderful.

Roasted, marinated red peppers are equally simple, and equally marvelous. They're enhanced by wedges of grilled provolone cheese, a lip-smacking accompaniment. I would have reordered the frutti di mare, a cold, marinated seafood mix of calamari, shrimp, octopus and clams, zipped up with olives, as a main dish if my professional obligations hadn't stood in the way. And if you're wondering if the soup season has started, Il Forno's ribollita removes any doubt. It's an aromatic broth, heaped with vegetables and white beans, sprinkled with a bit of olive oil and teamed with grilled Italian bread.

If you're looking to make an evening of dinner (and have the dollars to stretch it out), share an appetizer, then share a pasta course. The pappardelle alla Bolognese is everything it should be. Wide ribbons of homemade pasta are draped with a fragrant veal sauce, then touched up with Parmesan cheese. The combination of tastes and textures shows why this is a classic dish. The kitchen shows just as much ability, and a little more creativity, with its intense penne pasta, inventively teamed with mushrooms and oysters in a hard-hitting black truffle sauce.

Don't look for massive, southern Italian-style platters in the main-dish list. No one's going to be loosening any belts after polishing off these entrees. But these are the kind of entrees you'll delight in polishing off.

Pollo in agro dolce is just about as good as chicken gets. A juicy chicken breast, crisp on the outside, comes stuffed with a dreamy mix of wild mushrooms, figs and plums, and deftly moistened with a sweet white-wine (vin santo) sauce. The high-powered scents of earthy mushrooms and rich fruit demonstrate that, in the right hands, chicken can fly high.

Meat lovers are encouraged to keep their eye out for an occasional beef special, Il Forno's take on tournedos Rossini. It's a luscious hunk of filet mignon, capped with foie gras and gilded with a lusty brandy sauce. Roasted potatoes and asparagus round out this outstanding plate.

Rack of lamb also furnishes a compelling surge of animal protein. These powerful chops get a wonderful, last-minute charring in Il Forno's wood-burning oven. And the side of homemade fettuccine helps sop up all the fragrant juices.

Seafood fans can confidently drop their lines in the cacciucco, a seafood stew stocked with mussels, clams, shrimp, calamari and fish, swimming in an irresistible broth fashioned from lobster stock and white wine. I expected to be just as pleased by the tagliolini al limone con capesante, thin noodles in a light lemon sauce topped by five gorgeous-looking scallops. But, unfortunately, these chewy specimens were longer on looks than they were on texture. When you're paying $23 for a scallop dish, you have a right to expect your jaws to have the evening off.

Desserts aren't weak, but they're not nearly as memorable as the other courses. Sliced apples atop tired puff pastry gets a needed boost from the scoop of white-chocolate ice cream. The amaretto chocolate mousse cake drives you significantly short of ecstasy. The almond lemon tort is a worthier effort. You may want to linger with an espresso. Somebody here knows how to make it.

Despite this town's abundance of Italian restaurants, only a handful of places performs at big-time levels. Il Forno belongs in that group.

Piadini, 1656 South Alma School, Mesa, 820-8080. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Piadini occupies the spot last leased by Bssghetti, a budget-priced Italian restaurant that didn't survive long. What makes Piadini's proprietor think his new venture, also a budget-priced Italian enterprise, will fare any better?

East Valley dwellers seem to be slow finding Piadini. On both my off-weekend visits, we didn't have much company. But if the restaurant can be convinced to go with its strengths, locals should have no trouble warming up to it.

It took me a nanosecond to warm up to the grilled polenta appetizer, vigorously paired with portabella mushrooms and Parmesan cheese. But the other starters are disappointing. Grilled eggplant with goat cheese and sun-dried tomato had no flair or flavor. And the woeful antipasto is an outright embarrassment--a few slices of meat, some tasteless cheese, soggy grilled eggplant, olives and no discernible dressing. Where are the peppers, tomatoes, veggies, cheeses, herbs and seasonings that bring a good antipasto to life?

Now that you've saved eight bucks by not ordering the antipasto, you can confidently spend the money on the restaurant's specialty, piadini, flatbread lined with various ingredients, then folded over and sealed (much like calzone). Happily, unlike many of their calzone relatives, the piadini here aren't puffed up principally with empty space: They're stuffed, and you'll be, too, if you eat an entire one yourself.

The well-crafted piadini rustica is packed with juicy white meat sheared off a rotisserie chicken, smoked provolone, broccoli and sun-dried tomatoes. The sandwichlike luna piena is just as impressive, crammed with a terrific assortment of flavorful fillings: smoked salmon, red onion, capers, sun-dried tomato and spinach. It's amazing how good fresh bread stuffed with fresh ingredients can taste.

So how come, even though the place is called Piadini, these are the only two piadini on the menu? If I were running this operation, I'd stay focused on these items--they're what separates Piadini from the low-end Italian-fare pack. Why not create a dozen imaginative piadini and give this place its own niche and distinctive identity?

For some reason, however, management has shied away from the concept, preferring to fill out the rest of the menu with the same pizza/pasta/chicken dishes found at just about every Italian restaurant in town.

They're all serviceable enough, but nothing will get you panting to return. Best is the fettuccine tossed with rotisserie chicken and roasted red peppers, moistened with a tomato-cream sauce. Mild grilled sausage--embellished with huge charred chunks of red and green pepper, onion, fennel and a wedge of polenta--has an appealing rustic charm.

The banal linguini with scallops and portabella mushrooms in pesto sauce isn't nearly as good as it sounds. This platter needs some punching up--the flavors just aren't there. And the pizza is only so-so, too. The toppings are vigorous enough, especially the model coated with prosciutto, sage, Gruyere, mozzarella and green onions. But the pizza dough is too bready for my taste.

Desserts are homemade, and they taste like it. If you follow up the grilled polenta and portabella mushroom appetizer with a piadini, and then finish up with either the creamy cannoli or the rich New York cheesecake, I strongly suspect you'll be making plans for another visit. But if you order differently, that thought may never strike you.

Piadini needs to concentrate on what it does best. Pavarotti shouldn't dance; Julia Roberts shouldn't sing; and Fife Symington shouldn't be processing loans. I'd like to see Piadini live up to its name.

Il Forno:
Frutti di mare
Pappardelle alla Bolognese
Apple tart

Grilled polenta
Piadini rustica
Luna piena
Fettuccine al pollo


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