Roman Holiday: There's no shortage of Italian restaurants in the Valley. Local folklore says there are more Italian places here than any other ethnic variety, including Mexican.
But there's not necessarily strength in numbers. Most of these restaurants are serviceable, but few are memorable. However, I've just come back from one that should stick in your mind long after you've returned home.
It's La Fontanella, which has been going strong for more than a decade. Operated by refugee Chicago Italians, this place combines homey charm with first-rate fare and reasonable prices. When I first reviewed it several years ago, I was impressed. After a recent revisit, I'm still impressed.
Just about everything here bursts with flavor. Familiar appetizers like escargots or antipasto (Italian meats, pecorino cheese, fresh mozzarella, tomato and roasted peppers) get the meal off on the right foot. And no other restaurant in town, as far as I know, offers suppli, a Roman specialty. They're perfect to nibble on: deep-fried rice croquettes, light and crisp, stuffed with mozzarella.
Main dishes will make you wonder why anyone ever emigrated from Italy. Years ago, I gave a Best of Phoenix to La Fontanella's rack of lamb. It's as good as ever: four juicy chops coated with an herbed crust.
Osso buco (that's veal shank) features fall-off-the-bone meat, moistened in an aromatic sauce fashioned from wine, tomatoes and pancetta. Naturally, it comes with a small fork, so you can dig out the luscious marrow.
I had never tried the shrimp scampi here. Now I've made up for lost time. This is what shrimp scampi is supposed to taste like--six meaty shrimp teamed with lots of butter and garlic. It's simple, but very, very effective.
Other tested entree winners include lamb agrassato (lamb shank braised in Marsala wine, with raisins, pine nuts and tomatoes) and seafood reale (shrimp and scallops in a rich sherry cream sauce).
The homemade desserts won't let you down, either. Chief among them is the proprietor's gelato, which came in hazelnut, pistachio and white chocolate models. The cannoli are just about as fetching.
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Two people, each ordering a three-course dinner, can expect to drop about $50, before tax and tip. Split an appetizer and dessert, and you can lower that figure by ten bucks. Whichever route you follow, you'll be getting your money's worth.
La Fontanella is at 4231 East Indian School. Call 955-1213.
China Syndrome: Ever since it opened in a Tempe storefront three years ago, C-Fu Gourmet has been one of the few Valley Chinese restaurants good enough to compete on New York's Mott Street or San Francisco's Grant Street.
The owner thinks the Valley is ready for more. He's moved east, to a 13,000-square-foot site at 2051 West Warner in Chandler.
He tells me the new place will continue to emphasize seafood so fresh it's still swimming when you order it. In addition, there'll be a sushi bar, managed by the folks who used to operate Yamakasa. And if that's not compelling enough, C-Fu Gourmet plans to offer dim sum daily. Call 899-3888 for more info.--Howard Seftel