Va Bene: Happy Hour Report Card

The Spot: Va Bene Italian Cuisine and Wine Bar, 4647 E. Chandler Blvd., Phoenix, (480) 706-4070. www.vabeneaz.com

The Hours: 4 to 7 p.m. daily, 4 p.m. to close Sundays and Mondays

The Details: Contrary to what the restaurant's website says, Va Bene's happy hour isn't exclusively drinks; it's just mostly drinks. Domestic bottles are down to $2.50, import bottles for $3.25, margaritas for $4.75, martinis and well drinks for $3.75, and house wines - normally $5 each - are all $1 off. Happy hour is offered in the bar only (but it's a huge and varied space, so this is no problem) and also includes 1/2 off appetizers.

We traded in nouveau chic this week for white tablecloths in a trip to the Jan to Scottsdale's Marcia, Phoenix suburb Ahwatukee. Seating ourselves at a high-top by the window, we started with the Bruschetta ($3). The crostinis were crispy and the mix of tomatoes, garlic, basil, and olive oil tasted fresh, though the flavor - like many here - was very subtle.

We try escargot for the first time - and Va Bene's final grade - after the jump.

We started with the Bruschetta ($3), which had the crispness of fresh ingredients but no standout flavor.
We started with the Bruschetta ($3), which had the crispness of fresh ingredients but no standout flavor.

​Next, we tried the Melanzane Ripieni ($4): baked eggplant stuffed with squash zucchini, ricotta cheese with Va Bene's homemade marinara sauce, and topped with milk mozzarella (someday, this dish's fairy godmother will come and turn it into a lasagna). We'd heard good things and weren't disappointed; anyone squeamish about eggplant will find it pleasantly drowned in ricotta.

For our final appetizer selection, we set our sights on adventure with the escargot ($5 - sautéed with garlic and a creamy gorgonzola cheese, and baked in a puff pastry with a spicy mustard sauce). It arrived very prettily plated and wrapped up like a puff-pastry present. Cutting into the corners revealed none of the main event, which then came tumbling out all at once when we reached the center. Here's the thing: This dish made an excellent effort to make the escargot completely incidental - but does one really add anything to the other? Either way, mark it off on your checklist (if you're having trouble with the consistency, just tell yourself it's really large boba at the bottom of your bubble tea, which is exactly what it looks like).

For drinks, we sipped two glasses of the house Chianti ($4), which had a warm and lightly fruity flavor that didn't overpower the appetizers.

Other than a slight giveaway in consistency, you'd never know this dish was mainly eggplant.
Other than a slight giveaway in consistency, you'd never know this dish was mainly eggplant.

The Interior: The bar itself is a large rectangle that floats in the center of the space, surrounded by booths and high-top tables. The color scheme is all rich golds and burgundy, with faux-painted walls and ceilings and heavy curtains. It may sound a bit garish, but it's actually quite effective for what it is: a dark and romantic Italian restaurant, the kind of place you'd like to find the Sopranos in the back room with the curtains pulled (surprise! it's actually just a timeshare seminar!). There are pops of playfulness, like the sparkling black stone countertop and the mirrors, but the real standout is the artwork: Done by a New York City artist who came to visit the restaurant space before he would sign off on the sale, it is warm and colorful, and a little bit Picasso. Something to keep in mind: At 4:30 p.m. the crowd was still very young, but this is one of those places that can go from zero to Real Housewives of Ahwatukee in record time.

The Cost: Three appetizers and two glasses of house wine came out to about $22, including tax.

When the Escargot arrived in its pretty puff pastry, we got a little misty-eyed (or misty-tongued?) remembering the brie appetizer at the late but great Farrelli's Cinema Super Club.
When the Escargot arrived in its pretty puff pastry, we got a little misty-eyed (or misty-tongued?) remembering the brie appetizer at the late but great Farrelli's Cinema Super Club.

The Conclusion: Overall, Va Bene is a nice change of pace for happy hour. We weren't thrilled with the appetizer selections, but we're not seafood people (and most of the apps are seafood). We could only watch as the table next to us gleefully devoured a heaping plate of the saffron beer-battered Calamari Fritti ($4.50). That said, there's something a little bit magical about having escargot for only $5 - and even when the flavors sometimes disappointed, that's what we remembered. That, and the signature basket of warm, fresh bread with cheesy spread - brought to the table even without a full meal.

Overall Grade: B+

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