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The Prosciutto Happiness

Tutti Santi, 7575 North 16th Street, Phoenix, 216-0336. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.

Americans are obsessed with progress. Everything always has to be up-to-the-minute new and better than it was. When's the last time you saw an ad for a product that boasted "Old and Unimproved!"?

Rushing to embrace the latest novelty, we sometimes forget that change isn't necessarily progress. Ask the people behind New Coke, the Arch Deluxe and the Charles Barkley trade.

Some things work too well to cast aside simply for the sake of change. Will a new car get me to work any faster? Will a new computer make the agony of writing any easier? Will a new spouse make me any happier? At this point, old and unimproved still suit me just fine.

Restaurants are no different. Now, the mere fact that a restaurant has been around a certain number of years is no guarantee of kitchen prowess, past or present. In any field, longevity isn't always keyed to quality. If it were, Stephen King would be polishing his Nobel Prize for Literature and we'd all still be using AT&T's long-distance service.

But standing the test of time should count for something. At a minimum, in the restaurant business, it suggests a certain reliability and predictability. So I went to check out the appeal of two Valley Italian old-timers, Tutti Santi and Tomaso's.

Never heard of Tutti Santi? No surprise there--it's only been around for about six months under that name. But it's really a reincarnation of Nina L'Italiana, which had to close down its long-running Bell Road operation when the Squaw Peak Parkway bulldozers started plowing north.

It now occupies a strip-mall spot that has buried two restaurants in the last few years. But the landlord can relax--it looks like Tutti Santi will be doing business for a while.

The main dining area is a long room with a slanted ceiling and mirror at one end. There's a more intimate enclosed section off the other end, decorated with a colorful mural of Florence. Smokers, beware: You'll be exiled to restaurant Siberia, a small area on the far side of the premises, just off the bar.

Nina has remembered how to put guests at ease. On both visits I was treated as if the staff knew who I was. (It didn't.) Service is uncommonly gracious and knowledgeable, and each evening concluded with a flaming, on-the-house Sambuca, an Italian liqueur.

But Nina must have had a memory lapse when she filled the breadbasket. In the old place, diners got wonderful fresh-grilled garlic bread dusted with Parmesan cheese. You could smell it when you walked in. Here, you get a third-rate Italian loaf teamed with ugly, foil-wrapped pats of butter. Even lowbrow Italian chain restaurants deliver focaccia and fresh-baked bread these days. It makes a lousy first impression.

Fortunately, the rest of dinner makes the bread misstep easier to overlook. Appetizers give off the scents of the Mediterranean. Dazzling mussels freshened in a white-wine garlic sauce furnish summery satisfaction. Carpaccio, raw, translucently thin slices of filet mignon, are dappled with the flavors of Italy: diced tomatoes, capers, basil, olive oil and Parmesan cheese. Calamari fritti are marvelous: crunchy on the outside, tender on the inside. And the antipasto for two is worth the $10 tag. Prosciutto-wrapped melon and fried ravioli are its two most outstanding components.

If you're looking to eat on the budget plan, you could fill the hunger cracks with the gratis salad or soup that precedes all entrees. The greenery is notable more for heft than quality, but sometimes that will do. If the soup of the day is the stracciatella, though, don't hesitate. It's like an Italian chicken egg-drop soup, and quite tasty.

The main dishes brought back remembrance of things pasta. Nina had a way with noodles, and she hasn't lost her touch. Fettuccine al pesto is perhaps the best dish here, and at $9.95 it's also the cheapest. But it's not for the faint-hearted--you won't find a richer pasta platter in the Valley. Homemade fettuccine, flecked with diced potatoes and broccoli, comes coated with a heart-stopping pesto cream sauce. You can get secondhand arteriosclerosis just sitting near it.

As rich and heavy as the fettuccine is, that's how light and ethereal the homemade ravioli are. They're stuffed with ricotta and spinach, finished with a touch of cream and moistened with a delicate tomato sauce. Tortellini panna rosa are just about as feathery, meat-stuffed pasta pouches in a brandy-tinged sauce, festooned with bits of leeks, mushrooms, peas and ham.

Some of the nonpasta dishes also shine. Veal Francese is formidable: gorgeously tender veal scaloppine coated with a lemon-butter sauce, perked up with capers, mushrooms and artichoke hearts. Chicken bocconcini brings strips of poultry gilded with a rich, winy sauce and zipped up with olives, mushrooms and artichokes. And the red snapper, moistened in a white-wine tomato sauce, displays the virtues of simplicity.

 

Less entrancing is the lamb shank, braised in a vegetable/veal stock that couldn't quite soften the meat's chewiness. The shrimp in the fettuccine mare e monti are a useless expense. (Without the shrimp, this $15.95 platter could be $3 or $4 cheaper.) The creamy cognac sauce and wild mushrooms already there do just fine by themselves. And the linguini del marinaio--pasta heaped with clams, mussels, calamari and shrimp--is routine.

The house-made desserts bring dinner to a sweet conclusion. The almond-lemon tart gets highest honors, but the chocolate mousse cake and fruit tart are close runners-up.

Tutti Santi isn't trying to reinvent Italian cuisine, or put a '90s spin on it. Why should it? The kitchen here hasn't forgotten the past, and Italian-food fans won't mind being condemned to repeat it.

Tomaso's, 3225 East Camelback, Phoenix, 956-0836. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.

Tomaso's has been around for so long, it practically invented Italian cooking in this town. Think of the extraordinary changes that have taken place since it opened 20 years ago. Back in 1977, new homes cost $40,000; Barry Goldwater was a conservative; and the Cardinals hadn't won a playoff game in decades. Well, maybe some things haven't changed.

Tomaso's has always attracted celebrities, or what pass for celebrities in this town. It still does. On one of my visits, Charlie Keating occupied a back table, perhaps hatching new plans to separate widows and orphans from their money. He must be a regular--the staff calls him "Big Guy."

The place is in the midst of a renovation. Look for a bigger bar and enlarged dining area, with booths and chandeliers.

The food, substantially unchanged since 1977, doesn't require extensive remodeling, but some repairs are definitely in order. The main dishes need no tweaking--they're just about perfect. But the rest of the meal shows its age, and can't keep up.

A weak breadbasket gets the meal off to a slow start. There are a dozen bakeries making great Italian bread in this town, and Tomaso's needs to get in touch with one of them.

Appetizers can induce narcolepsy. They're beset by stodginess and ineptitude. Peperoni arrostiti sounds great: "roasted mixed bell peppers, marinated with olive oil and fresh herbs, served with imported anchovies, olives, capers and homegrown sundried tomatoes." Too bad the dish didn't follow the script. The "roasted mixed bell peppers" turned out to be a few measly strips of green pepper. Stuffed mushroom caps arrived barely lukewarm, the stuffing devoid of the promised prosciutto, pepper, leek and Parmesan flavors. And I should have sent back the mozzarella fresca. Here it is prime tomato season, and the kitchen sends out a tasteless specimen that wouldn't pass the grade in January. (There were no signs of the promised locally grown yellow tomatoes, either.) Rubbery mozzarella and less-than-vibrant basil made this starter an all-around loser.

So how do you explain the entree turnaround? I can't. But they're nothing short of superb.

Cuscinetto di vitello is a triumph, veal stuffed with mascarpone cheese and prosciutto, in a fragrant Marsala sauce crowded with wild mushrooms. It's embellished with four homemade ravioli and a veggie medley of squash, broccoli and grilled artichoke. This platter compels your full attention.

Ravioloni all'aragosta is just as debonair. You get four large ravioli filled with lobster and smothered in a savory cognac sauce. For diversion, this entree also includes four good-size prawns. You get a full $21.95 worth of value.

Crostacei fradiavolo has been on the menu for decades, and one look and taste will tell you why. It's an aquatic park, an enormous platter heaped with mussels, clams, shrimp, scallops and king crab, served over linguini in a spicy, garlic-laden sauce. I haven't had Italian seafood like this since I had Christmas Eve dinner at the home of an Italian friend.

Fettuccine Bolognese shouldn't be a culinary challenge, but few places get it right. Here, the meaty sauce is dead on target, and once you sprinkle on Parmesan cheese and opt for the terrific $3 homemade-sausage supplement, you'll be transported to pasta paradise. I'm even willing to overlook Tomaso's use of dried fettuccine, instead of the homemade fettuccine the menu advertises.

Filet mignon will arouse any latent carnivorous instincts you may possess. You get two tender medallions, brushed with olive oil and gently seasoned with cheese and spices. Portafoglio di pollo, meanwhile, turns chicken into something worth ordering. It's a double breast stuffed with fontina cheese and prosciutto, topped with mushrooms and smoothed with a red-wine sauce.

 

After this rousing main-dish fare, desserts are a letdown. According to our server, only two of the offerings are made in-house. Both the cannoli and the tiramisu suggest that Tomaso's could benefit from the services of an accomplished pastry chef.

Tomaso's may have a lot of miles on it, but the main-dish engine is still purring. Once the kitchen gives appetizers and desserts a thorough tune-up, Tomaso's should be able to race with any Italian restaurant in town.

Tutti Santi:
Carpaccio
$5.95
Ravioli alla Nina
11.95
Veal Francese
15.95
Tiramisu
5.00

Tomaso's:
Mozzarella fresca
$7.95
Fettuccine Bolognese
9.95
Cuscinetto di vitello
18.95
Ravioloni all'aragosta
21.95

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