Might there be some redemption for what I like to call the swill on and around Mill? As I mentioned in my recent write-up of Mucho Gusto Taqueria and Mexican Bistro, just west of Mill Avenue on University Drive ("Taste Magnet," January 20), Mill Avenue generally holds as much fascination for me as the latest utterances of Simon Cowell or a buzz saw to my cranium. Once upon a time, college towns had some character and individuality. But in the hands of soulless technocrats and city planners with dollar signs in their pupils, the main drags of most university communities have become grotesque corporate playgrounds for Babbitts with excess ducats.
As we all know, this is the case with Mill Avenue. But rather than just cursing the darkness, I want to champion those who maintain their beacons for discriminating bellies in spite of Mill's crassness. Two such individuals are Christine and Jay Wisniewski, founders of the 12-year-old Caffe Boa, which recently moved from its somewhat cramped digs, beside where Long Wong's used to be, to the other side of Mill, in the historic Casa Loma building adjacent to Hayden Square.
What the Wisniewskis have done to the space is breathtaking. The large, airy hall with its high ceilings and tall glass doorways has an impressive, big-city feel to it. Beautiful hardwood flooring and a handcrafted bar add elegance, and the newly exposed brick of some walls juxtaposed with the cream-colored paint of others lends the restaurant the air of a recently gentrified loft. Dark wooden tables populate the main dining area, bare save for candles, and place settings wrapped in twine and accented with a sprig of pine needles -- a touch of shabby chic.
398 South Mill Avenue, Tempe
Lumache Boa: $7.25
Rigatoni puttanesca: $10.95
Luca's meatballs: $14.95
Hours: Sunday through Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. (kitchen closes at 10 p.m.); Thursday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight (kitchen closes at 11 p.m.).
It's a spot for adults, not the usual ASU kids. Jazz quartets and trios entertain every night of the week but Monday and Wednesday, and, ironically, the live jazz fosters one of my few complaints against Caffe Boa. That is, when the musicians are wailing at full blast, it does not make for an enjoyable dining experience. Not that I don't appreciate the efforts of these Miles Davis wanna-bes, many of them from ASU's jazz studies program. But I'd appreciate them more if the sound was turned down a notch. Even when I attempted fleeing the din one night to a little alcove in the back, my ears could find no refuge from Caffe Boa's acoustics. Why, if the management doesn't do something, I may be forced to wear earplugs next time I masticate there.
For sup there again I will, eardrums be damned! The menu is mostly Italian, with broader Mediterranean touches. Jay Wisniewski, who acts as chef as well as proprietor, has imported some of these accents from his ancestral homeland of Croatia, where he and his wife spend their summers. Dubrovnik, Croatia, is about five hours from Italy by boat, and the cuisine is similarly close. One of the best items on his menu is influenced by his Croatian travels, the lumache Boa, or escargot sauted in a tomato sauce with mushrooms, black olives, red peppers, white wine and two slices of grilled polenta. In the States, eating escargot usually means chewy, tasteless gastropods so overwhelmed by garlic and butter that you might as well be gnawing on someone's shoelace. But the tomatoey bath Wisniewski gives his snails does not hide their appealing earthiness. For those of you who've only tried these terrestrial mollusks in garlic butter, Wisniewski's lumache Boa will be a revelation.
The Caprese and the bruschetta appetizers are more standard, and though both are good, the bruschetta is better: four nice-size pieces of garlic toast heaped with chunks of garlicky tomatoes in extra-virgin olive oil. Though you can't bite into them without spilling diced tomatoes all over your plate (and in my case, my shirt), it's well worth the mess. The salsiccia contadina, house-made fennel-seed sausage, in a tomato sauce similar to the escargot, practically did a gay tarantella on my taste buds, it was so delish. But why so little of it? Instead of just quarter-size bites, I wanted an entire smokehouse of them to eat my way through! But I'd settle for two or three links, if the smokehouse option is unavailable.
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As for the pastas and entrees, I dare say there's not a bad one in the bunch. The items I'd go back for? The rigatoni puttanesca, the agnolotti Boa, and Luca's meatballs. Remember how I used to whine that a good meatball in Phoenix was harder to find than a snowball in Texas? Until a week or so ago, when Caffe Boa reopened with a larger menu including spaghetti and meatballs, you'd have to hoof it to Redendo's in Fountain Hills for a meat sphere worth inhaling. Caffe Boa's are equally soft and savory, a mix of pork, veal, ground beef, Italian sausage, herbs, eggs, and several cheeses, simmered in marinara until the sauce is as thick as tomato paste. Snooty foodies may turn up their noses at it, but the loss is theirs.
I'm a big fan of puttanesca, the tangy mélange of tomatoes, black olives, chile peppers, mushrooms, and so on, which, according to legend, Italian whores cooked up to sucker in the johns. Wisniewski's is as thick as a ragu, and, partnered with fat rigatoni, could seduce a celibate straight to hell. His agnolotti Boa, ravioli-like "priest caps" stuffed with mushrooms in a heavy, pinkish, tomato-cream sauce, might not be as dangerous for your soul, but for the size of your stomach, well, that's another matter.
Caffe Boa boasts a wine list that might even placate Paul Giamatti's character in Sideways, and it offers an entire page of wine flights. I've become chemically dependent upon Lolonis' Lady Bug Red, an unpretentious blend of Carignane, Zin, Syrah, Cab and Merlot that's fruit-forward, and great with pasta. But if you're not in a wine mood, Caffe Boa now has a full bar in addition to the vino.
The dessert list needs a little work. I only liked the tiramisu, and even that was just average, but by the time I got through my appetizers and main course, I was too happy and full to worry much about sweets. So I'll let 'em slide on that one. After all, with this new and improved Caffe Boa, there's finally a reason to spend any time at all on Mill.