I don't have to tell you that first impressions can make or break a restaurant. How many times have you been treated to haphazard service, long waits or so-so food on your initial visit to an eatery? These are not things we forget. Bad first impressions can often turn into longterm grudges. I have a small list of places that almost nothing would convince me to return to.
Of all the factors that can influence a diner's first impression, service is foremost in my mind. You can thank Aldo Baldo Ristorante and Marco Polo Cafe, two new Italian restaurants in Scottsdale, for that. While Aldo Baldo's staffers work like cogs in an efficient machine, they show an inattention to the details of service that I found bizarre. On the other hand, the service at Marco Polo was tragically sincere, but you could fly to Los Angeles in the time it took us to score food.
The point here, of course, is not that I had a bad experience. The horrifying thing is that the same thing could happen to any customers--to people who don't publish their opinions, but simply never return. Poor service has a way of leaving a bad taste in the mouth longer than the foulest meal.
For instance, my first visit to Aldo Baldo Ristorante is not disastrous, just flawed. Were I not paid to do so, I probably wouldn't return. But I do, and my second visit goes slightly better.
Nestled on the south side of Scottsdale Fashion Square off Camelback Road, Aldo Baldo is Big 4 Restaurant, Inc.'s newest creation. The restaurant is cheery with the primary colors of 1920s' Futurism, an artistic movement begun in Italy which celebrated "the motion, force, velocity and strength of mechanical forms." Aldo Baldo himself is a fictional Italian inventor and artist. His quotes appear above the restaurant-length open kitchen.
The restaurant's lunch and dinner menus are creative and reasonably priced. Exhausted shoppers and the postwork crowd will feel equally at home here. Dress is upscale casual.
My dining accomplice, Goat, and I stop in for a midafternoon lunch on a Sunday. Aldo Baldo is busy, but not crowded. We order a lime Italian soda and mineral water, which arrive in attractive V-shape goblets. Regular water is brought only on request.
We select soup, salad and two pasta dishes from the lunch menu. As we await our repast, we admire our machine-age surroundings. A basket of pizza bread focaccia would do us good right now. But it is brought as an afterthought with our soup and salad. Its linen wrapper is smudged with tomato. Goat's cup of Tuscan-style bean soup looks good, but I must ask for a clean spoon to sample it. Mine has baked cheese on it. Though the soup has a nice bacon flavor, I'm not wowed by it. At $2, it is lukewarm and overpriced. In comparison, the calamari salad is large. But then, it's meant to be a meal in itself. It sounds like a promising combination of tastes and textures: fried calamari, red potatoes, feta cheese. However, its wilting bed of mixed greens looks slept in and the fried calamari are overcooked, chewy and fishy tasting. Our two pasta dishes are pleasing, though not overwhelmingly large. "This reminds me of goulash," says Goat, of the cavatappi. He's got a point. The mixture of corkscrew pasta, tomato, basil, Italian sausage and fresh mushrooms does evoke memories of dishes with that name.
Linguini with smoked salmon features a generous amount of salmon flaked in a cream sauce of tomato, vodka and dill. The only turnoff is from the greasy fingerprints all around the rim of the pasta bowl. Attention to detail is clearly lacking at Aldo Baldo today.
Goat finishes off the cavatappi and I have the remainder of my linguini boxed to go. I am happy to see leftovers packaged in paper, not Styrofoam, containers. Though we are stuffed, we cannot leave without sampling dessert. Goat bleats for the cookies-and-cream gelato; I request the lemon sorbet.
Again, the glassware is snappy and smart. Both desserts come with an Italian cookie. I like the gelato better than the sorbet, which is lumpy. When I ask the busperson for water, he brings one glass--for me.
Service improves on our second visit, for dinner. This time, Goat and I are seated along the black banquette that lines one wall. Unfortunately, every time someone near me sits or stands, I feel like I'm on a seesaw. This is troublesome when one wants to avoid, say, splattering tomato sauce from one's fork onto one's shirt. Adventurous Goat orders the Sanpellegrino bitter as an aperitif. The ladies at the next table are intrigued by the tiny three-ounce bottle, and ask Goat what he is drinking. Cherry cough-syrup red, but extremely bitter, this imported beverage is obviously an acquired taste.
Our waitress brings us a complimentary appetizer of marinated eggplant and tomato with homemade toast rounds. We munch and watch in disbelief as someone from the staff touches up the black chairs at another table with a black felt-tip marker. Why this has to be done during dinner is anyone's guess.
Though we're not completely finished with the toast and tomatoes, our waitress removes the plate and deposits a basket of hot focaccia. After our stingy treatment at lunch, I'm too pleased to be the recipient of all this food to say anything. Tonight the pizza-bread dough is airy, but warm.
The antipasto misto is almost too large for our small table. Our busperson, a woman, is sharp-eyed. "Can I get anything out of your way?" she asks. The antipasto contains samplings of prosciutto, mortadella, mozzarella, salami, provolone, roast pepper, marinated artichokes and mushroom, grilled eggplant and zucchini, plum tomato, baby asparagus and calamata olives. It's heavier on vegetables than meats and cheeses, but I don't feel deprived.
Our second appetizer, a bowl of fresh greenlip mussels with chopped tomatoes, onions and bell peppers is very much in keeping with the holiday season--green and red. I like it, though some of the mussels are on the chewy side.
We're still working on this mess of food when our salads arrive. This kind of ill timing occurs all evening long. Goat's salad, the mista, features crisp mixed greens and a simple vinaigrette dressing. My salad of plum tomatoes and Gorgonzola is very good. Aldo Baldo isn't chintzy with the blue-veined cheese.
Smoke wafts our way from the smoking section, traveling easily through the open partition separating the dining areas. Redirected air circulation might alleviate this problem. Uh oh! Here come our main courses. The server delivering them bobbles my plate and nearly drops it in my lap, but recovers. "Sorry," he says. Our attentive busperson scurries to clear dishes.
Despite this near-mishap, both presentations are aesthetically pleasing. Green half-moon ravioli in a pink tomato-cream sauce are festively decorated with bits of red pepper and grated Parmesan. Filled with creamy ricotta and prosciutto, the mezzaluna are light and lovely.
Shrimp scampi in a creamy roasted pepper sauce are tasty and firm. A dab of baked goat cheese and two piles of slivered zucchini, carrots and red pepper complete this plate. I am pleased.
We finish our meal with foamy decaffeinated caffe latte and dessert. Goat is stuck on gelato. He orders the cinnamon-vanilla this time. It tastes just like apple pie. I like the torte de mascarpone. This layered confection of fluffy cake and mascarpone mousse filling is dusted with cocoa powder and is pure genius. Dinner runs us seventy bucks with tip, which surprises me. Though Goat and I did order a lot of food, Aldo Baldo is being touted as a moderately priced restaurant. I had anticipated paying about ten dollars less for the two of us.
No one can fault the concept of Aldo Baldo. Its decor is bold; its food imaginative. But right now, something is lacking in the service department. "Futurism" is a good restaurant theme, but not when the waitstaff takes the futurists' adoration of the machine to heart. The tiny details of service do matter. Ask anyone. Marco Polo Cafe serves as a case in point when it comes to bad first impressions. The six-week-old, Italian-Oriental cafe occupies the obscure Camelback Mall location along Goldwater Boulevard only recently vacated by Vince's. All signs of the pizzeria, including the wall mural of Buffalo, New York, are gone. Marco Polo now resembles an old-style trattoria you might find in New Haven, Connecticut. I love the lace tablecloths and heavy-legged tables. And, believe me, Goat and I have plenty of time to examine our surroundings. This appealing little restaurant is woefully understaffed at present. Jim Valli runs the kitchen. His wife Irma handles the house. A third person washes dishes and helps with preparation. The Vallis desperately need to hire another waitperson and an assistant chef. The food is good. It just takes forever to get it. I could recite numbers for you. Six minutes until we are greeted and menus brought. Fifty-five minutes with no food of any kind. Two hours, from start to finish, mostly spent waiting and watching other people eat.
Apologies and smiles can never repair this kind of damage. Many people, myself and Goat included, would avoid this restaurant for fear of a second out-of-control experience.
Which is too bad, because the food--for the most part--is interesting. An Oriental dinner salad is ample and refreshing. I like the crisp bok choy, crunchy water chestnuts and soy sauce vinaigrette. The insalata Valli is also generous, but translucent with too much dressing. Roasted pimiento is a nice touch.
Phantom of the Opera alternates with Vivaldi's Four Seasons on the night we visit. I favor the Vivaldi because this is when we get our food.
The people who are really enjoying themselves here are those who have brought their own wine. Marco Polo has no liquor license, but you are invited to bring your own. Irma Valli tells us that many people like it that way. It is sort of retroromantic, isn't it? And wine does help while away the time.
Our kung pao prawns show up after our salads, but after nearly an hour of waiting, I barely care. The warm appetizer is very good: spicy sweet-hot with honey and chili oil and full of varied textures such as cashews, ubiquitous water chestnuts, shredded bok choy, pineapple and crunchy fried rice noodles.
Both of us have ordered pasta dishes as our main entree. After all, it was Marco Polo who brought the noodle to Italy from China. Pasta is served in heavy bowls; a piece of bread comes perched on its lip.
Will I ever learn to avoid "primavera"? Apparently not. I fall for it once again because I think Marco Polo's Chinese primavera pasta with chicken will be different. And it is. It resembles nothing more than spaghetti topped with Chun King something-or-other. Thankfully, the flavors are good, but I'm disappointed by the preponderance of water chestnuts and bamboo shoots.
Wait a minute. Where's the chicken? "Oh, did you order it with chicken?" says Irma. "I forgot. It's my fault. I'm sorry." Grateful to have any food at all, I tell her it's okay. "Thank you for accepting it," she gushes.
Penne a la fontana looks better. The tubular pasta is bathed in a creamy sauce with peas, mushrooms and bits of mortadella. It's a comforting dish, though a tad salty. I like it.
Dessert is limited to cassata cake this night. Goat and I share a piece of this layered confection of pudding, sponge cake and fruit. It is quite pleasant.
If they're still around, I'll revisit Marco Polo in half a year or so. With a couple of extra hands at work, I could see this cute cafe becoming a neighborhood favorite. The food is satisfying and the price is right. But no one has this kind of time to waste--especially not with a big budget, in-and-out operation like Aldo Baldo just across the street. I hope the Vallis make it. They could, just by getting their food out of the kitchen quicker.
Aldo Baldo Ristorante, 7014 East Camelback, Scottsdale, 994-0062. Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Sunday; Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday.
Marco Polo Cafe, 7027 East Camelback, Scottsdale, 970-0799. Hours: 5 to 10 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday.
You could fly to Los Angeles in the time it took us to score food.
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It resembles nothing more than spaghetti topped with Chun King something-or-other.
Aldo Baldo is a fictional Italian inventor and artist. His quotes appear above the open kitchen.
We watch in disbelief as someone from the staff touches up the black chairs at another table with a black felt-tip marker.