Tomaso's 2000, 16640 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 480-991-2000. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner, 5 p.m. to 10, seven days a week.
In the old days, when the West was being settled, development took a predictable course. First came the explorers. Then came the hunters and trappers. Next came the ranchers and farmers, with the tradespeople following on their heels. Finally, teachers, lawyers and doctors moved in, and a community began to take root.
These days, however, in our corner of the West, growth takes a different course. First come the land speculators. They hook up with on-the-make politicians and developers. Bankers get into the act. Soon, sprawling, look-alike housing tracts and ugly commercial strips spread across what was unspoiled desert. The final step in modern community-building: an influx of Italian restaurants.
Tomaso's 2000: Baked clams casino $7.95 Lobster ravioli $15.95 Cioppino $22.00 Tiramisu $6.00
Baked clams casino
That, more or less, is how north Scottsdale has taken shape. And, as if to prove my point, Tomaso's 2000 opened at the busy intersection of Bell and Scottsdale roads about a year ago.
Why here? Willie Sutton used to rob banks, he said, because "that's where the money is." Restaurateur Tomaso Maggiore's new place is in north Scottsdale because that's where more and more of his customers are. Give him credit for recognizing that the Valley's center of restaurant gravity is starting to shift from the Camelback corridor, where the original Tomaso's is still enjoying a two-decade run, to this burgeoning part of town.
What kind of customers live in the neighborhood? Clearly not the kind the proprietor originally hoped for. During Tomaso's 2000's first few months, both culinary expectations and prices were high. The menu carried dishes like risotto, ostrich, veal baked with buffalo mozzarella and pork tenderloin braciole, the meat rolled with fancy Italian cheeses, currants and pine nuts, then braised in a tomato wine sauce. A simple grilled chicken entree cost $21, while veal parmigiana hit $23. Filet mignon reached $26.
The neighborhood, apparently, didn't embrace either the menu or the prices. So Tomaso's 2000 switched gears. These days, prices are way down -- nothing on the regular menu goes for more than $18.95. The pasta platters range from $8.95 to $11.95.
Prices aren't the only part of the operation being trimmed. The menu has been severely scaled back and now is pitched entirely to mainstream palates. You'll find one lamb entree (lamb chops), one fish platter (grilled salmon), and, surprisingly, no beef at all. Instead, the kitchen focuses on a thoroughly predictable assortment of chicken, veal and pasta dishes, prepared the same way they were in the year 999. When I first heard the name, I thought Tomaso's 2000 would be delivering cutting-edge cuisine. But after several visits, I believe this place might be more aptly called Tomaso's 1000.
Still, just because the fare is tried-and-true doesn't mean it can't be very good. Heck, it could even be inspired. Like too many Valley Italian restaurants, however, Tomaso's 2000 seems to be settling for very good.
The place makes a very good first impression, even before you enter. That's because there's an herb garden outside the door, where you'll sniff the scents of oregano and basil. Inside, the assault on your sense of smell continues -- the air is heavy with garlic and olive oil. It's as effective as Chanel No. 5.
The fanciful interior falls just short of kitsch. You get the feeling you aren't dining in an Italian restaurant so much as you're dining in a place that's designed to suggest an Italian restaurant. You can't miss the cues. There's Michelangelo's Creation of Adam painted on one wall, and what looks like a take on Raphael's Galatea on another. On the walls leading to the restrooms hang the usual Godfather and Sophia Loren pictures and posters. Red draperies and white cafe curtains adorn the windows. And above it all, the ceiling is painted with pillowy white clouds and a sunny blue Italian sky.
There's no harm nibbling on the ciabatta in the bread basket while you wait for appetizers. But be careful before you spread on the butter, which is infused with so much garlic your socks may involuntarily roll up and down.
The appetizer list looks exactly like every other Italian restaurant appetizer list in town. Can't any Italian chef in Maricopa County do starters other than fried calamari, bruschetta, stuffed mushrooms, tomatoes and mozzarella, baked clams and antipasto? Can't Tomaso's 2000 risk fielding just one appetizer item that everybody hasn't eaten 10,000 times before?
That's not to say that the appetizers aren't competently done. Butter-soft carpaccio, thinly sliced raw beef drizzled with olive oil and lemon, and touched with capers and shaved parmigiano, offers a pleasing mix of flavors and textures. Bruschetta, grilled ciabatta heaped with tomato and accented with garlic and basil, is uncomplicated fun. Less successful is the smoked salmon bruschetta, which has one ingredient -- smoked salmon -- too many. In cooking, as in architecture, sometimes less is more.
That's how I felt about the antipasto. The prosciutto, the provolone, the mozzarella, the tomato, the roasted peppers -- we've all been there, swallowed that. But the plate also held a breathtaking caponata, a Sicilian eggplant salad, good enough to build a meal around. Why couldn't the rest of the appetizers create this kind of excitement? The baked clams come close, due to the vigorous addition of olive oil, garlic and herbs, as well as a touch of bacon.
Like the appetizers, the main dishes won't score too many points for originality. But there's no denying occasional bursts of artistic and technical merit.
That's especially true of the extravagant lobster ravioli, the single best entree here. It's a giant, delicate pasta pouch, overstuffed with lobster moistened in a superb, sherry-tinged sundried-tomato sauce. A huge prawn and bits of lobster sprinkled on top gild this ravioli lily. So does the veggie side, yummy buttered snow peas and red peppers. Beware: This dish is rich enough to fell a moose. Still, you won't hear me complaining.
The best the other pasta platters can do is vie for runner-up. The gnocchi make a valiant effort. Although the potato-flour dumplings aren't as feathery light as they could be, the brown butter sauce, goosed up with sage and parmigiano cheese, mitigates that defect. The "wild mushroom ragout" part of spaghetti with veal sauce consisted of exactly one mushroom. Still, this high-energy Bolognese sauce isn't the usual ham-handed, oregano-laden, tomato-heavy sauce that many places try to pass off. Instead, it has subtlety, nuance and depth.
The spinach pasta roll, however, doesn't. It's one-dimensional, from the ricotta filling to the lightweight tomato-basil sauce. I also couldn't get too excited over the bland eggplant torte. I'd rather have made a meal out of the vigorous pesto tortelloni it was teamed with.
The veal and chicken dishes are certainly tasty, but not distinguished enough to separate themselves from the Italian restaurant pack. Veal Marsala, heaped with mushrooms, has an agreeable, winy intensity, and the roasted fennel alongside is an unexpected treat. But I wouldn't have minded some pasta accompaniment as well. What can you say about veal parmigiana? It's Italian-American comfort food, and the version here is comforting, as long as the $18 tag doesn't cause you any financial distress.
For some reason, the chef uses chicken, not veal, for the Valdostana. Perhaps someone is afraid that the veal's classic preparation -- breaded and fried -- might turn off fat-gram conscious diners. So Tomaso's 2000 cuts calorie corners by sautéeing a chicken breast before layering on fontina cheese and prosciutto. The result: The kitchen has transformed a superb veal dish into a vehicle for poultry, a vehicle that doesn't get out of second gear.
A couple of specials are hit-or-miss. Cioppino, a seafood stew, is the hit. The kitchen doesn't stint on the ocean fare -- there are enough fish swimming in this big bowl to satisfy Shamu. You'll get your recommended monthly requirement of shrimp, scallops, crab, mussels, clams, sea bass and snapper, tossed over cappellini. You'll also benefit from a wonderful sauce, thick with garlic, olive oil and tomato.
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Osso buco, though, needs work. Despite the braising, the meat on this veal shank tasted dried-out, not juicy. On the best models, the meat falls off the bone with just a touch from the fork. Here, it required some digging. At $24, the osso buco costs more than any other dish on the menu and delivers the least bang for the buck.
Tomaso's 2000 offers several pricey à la carte sides, from five to seven dollars. But they're big enough for a group to share, and two of them nicely fill in the appetite cracks. The potato torte features layers of thin-sliced spuds and spinach, draped with an impossibly rich creamy cheese sauce. Just a few bites go a long way, but they're tasty bites, indeed. Rapini (also known as broccoli rabe or rape) is a pungent green vegetable that doesn't get much plate time in this town. These sautéed greens will show you what you're missing. But take a pass on the wild mushroom soufflé. It's an enormous mound of assorted fungi in cream sauce, whose depths you'll completely plumb after one taste.
Desserts are a letdown. Most of them are not fashioned in-house, and the two that are shouldn't delay your departure. The obligatory tiramisu is light, flavorful and forgettable. The grainy texture of the crème caramel is all wrong. And the made-elsewhere chocolate cake won't add anything to your dining experience except useless calories.
Despite the forward-looking name, Tomaso's 2000 prefers to live in the Italian restaurant past. But as long as the neighborhood shares that preference, who can blame it? So don't look for the new Italian restaurant millennium just yet. Here in north Scottsdale, it seems everyone's more comfortable backing into the future.