Vittle Italy

Cafe Terrace, 4151 North Marshall Way, Scottsdale, 480-947-9364. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Dinner, Thursday through Saturday, until 10 p.m. Closed Sunday.

"Ego cogito, ergo sum," wrote philosopher Rene Descartes: "I think, therefore I am." That revelatory insight convinced him of this own reality. From that starting point, he spun out a philosophy that proved the reality of the world around him and, ultimately, the existence of God.

These days I wish I had paid a little more attention in my Philosophy 101 class. That's because visits to two new restaurants have left me profoundly confused about the nature of reality.

Even though their menus are very similar, Cafe Terrace and Buca di Beppo offer such contrasting Italian restaurant experiences that the rational mind can't comprehend them both simultaneously.

Which one is real and genuine? Which one is contrived and distorted? No doubt, Descartes could have worked it out in his head. But since my philosophy posits a culinary purpose to existence--Ego edo, ergo sum--the proof lay in the eating.

Set in the middle of Scottsdale's art gallery district, Cafe Terrace almost gives off urban vibes. That's because if you peer out the windows, you may actually spot real human beings, powered by their own two feet, strolling past on Marshall Way. But if you prefer rusticity, Cafe Terrace can also oblige. Out back, there's an extremely pleasant shaded outdoor patio, whose trellis is overrun with bougainvillea and tiny white lights.

Inside or out, you'll see tables lined with green linen and small votive candles. You'll hear a guitarist, strumming and singing out front. And you'll find an affable, Italian-accented proprietor dishing out flavorful, home-country fare at wallet-friendly prices. What's a low-key, neighborhood Italian place doing in this chic, touristy neighborhood? Who knows? But I bet the neighbors aren't complaining.

The proprietor arrived in town in August 1996, and says he immediately "fell in love with Phoenix." Now that's amore--to my mind, anyone who falls in love with the Valley in August is definitely a few olives short of an antipasto. Thankfully, though, his cooking is a lot sounder than his judgment.

Maybe it helps to have Mama in the kitchen. She spends the good-weather season here, pitching in. (She leaves in May.) For the most part, they work well together.

But initially, you'll need patience and faith, because meals get off to a slow start. The store-bought Italian bread is the first stumbling block. Surely Cafe Terrace can find better bread than these dreary loaves.

The appetizers are also weak. The seafood appetizer, four small shrimp, two out-of-shell mussels and a sprinkling of calamari, lightly dressed by a listless oil and lemon mix, doesn't have any sparkle. Neither does the antipasto, despite the wonderful San Daniele prosciutto. The rest of the platter--salami, olives and mozzarella--could use a veggie boost. And there's absolutely no reason to shell out $5.95 for the caprese, undistinguished tomato slices lined with mozzarella.

Instead, save your funds, and nibble on the snoozy house salad that comes gratis before dinner.

Once the main dishes arrive, however, Cafe Terrace comes on with a rush.
You can count on several homemade pasta specials to put a smile on your face in a hurry. Gnocchi are smothered with a scrumptious meat sauce that tastes like it's been simmering all day in a big pot in Bologna. Meat-filled tortellini, with just the right amount of al dente resistance, come draped with a tomato cream sauce that manages to be both luxurious and delicate at the same time. The contrasting textures of the tortellini and sauce make for Italian yin and yang.

But the spinach ravioli are even better. These airy pouches are so feathery you'll wonder why they just don't float off the plate. And the kitchen knows that all they require is a light butter and sage sauce to achieve perfection.

Other noodle dishes employ dried pasta. But the two I sampled--one made with spaghetti, the other with penne--are good enough to stack up against the gnocchi, tortellini and ravioli.

Spaghetti alla carbonara features a sauce put together with eggs, pancetta, cream, parsley and onions. Sometimes, carbonara can be so achingly rich that the flavor gets lost. But this version gets the ratio exactly right.

Penne benefits from the Sicilian treatment. No, it doesn't come with a horse's head or packet of dead fish. It comes tossed with a ravishing mix of cream, pine nuts, raisins, sauteed broccoli and hints of anchovy. And like all the other pasta dishes, there's enough of it on the plate to handle an ethnic appetite.

Along with pasta, Cafe Terrace offers a small entree list: four veal dishes, two chicken and one fish. The fish is exceptional--tuna in a Sicilian-style sweet-and-sour sauce heaped with a mound of onions. I haven't tasted tuna prepared this way anywhere else in the Valley. If you're skittish about trying this preparation, the $10.95 tag helps make the risk easier to swallow.

First-rate saltimbocca alla Romana is a more familiar platter--veal medallions layered with ham and seasoned with sage, in a robust sauce. Chicken cacciatora isn't quite as successful, browned pieces of white meat, simmered with a thimbleful of capers, mushrooms and olives in a sauce that could have benefited from a few more herbs and a splash of wine.

Homemade desserts taste as good as they look. The chocolate rum cake, studded with coffee beans, is very rich and buttery. Ricotta cheesecake, flecked with candied fruit, isn't too sweet or too heavy. Puff pastry stuffed with chocolate coffee cream suggests that Cafe Terrace could double as an Italian bakery. But, oddly enough, the kitchen doesn't seem to have its heart in the lackluster cannoli.

Cafe Terrace's friendly neighborhood setting and homespun Italian fare seem real and genuine enough to me. Okay, so it's not the same as proving that God exists. But it's a start.

Buca di Beppo, 3828 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 480-949-6622. Hours: Dinner, Monday through Friday, 5 p.m. to close; Saturday and Sunday, 4 p.m. to close.

Do you believe Buca di Beppo is a genuine Italian restaurant? Then no doubt you also believe that your tropical fish are tax-deductible "dependents," that Cher has all her original body parts, and that Dennis Rodman is joining the Meet the Press panel.

The Scottsdale branch of Buca di Beppo is a recent link in a growing Minnesota chain, founded by a Scandinavian. Industry analysts have proclaimed it one of America's "hot concepts."

And what a concept. If Disney had a "Little Italyland" restaurant, this would be it. First, the tongue-in-cheek look. One of the partners describes it as "the aftermath of an Italian family hurricane thrown against the walls." Almost every square inch of wall space is packed with pictures of famous Italians. The music system pipes in nonstop Puccini, Sinatra and folk tunes. Red-checked tablecloths line the tables, while jugs of wine and boxes of pasta sit on open shelves. The men's room is labeled "Goombah." You even walk through the kitchen to get to your table. The only missing touch is a blood-stained, bullet-riddled booth, commemorating a Mafia rubout.

The concept also focuses on the food. Unfortunately, it concentrates on quantity, not quality. Buca di Beppo (it means Joe's Cellar) serves its Italian-American fare "family-style." Well, maybe, but only if your family includes all the descendants of Brigham Young. Twosomes be warned: Each dish will squelch three or four appetites.

The chicken cacciatora, for example, features an enormous whole bird and about two and a half pounds of mashed potatoes. The "small" spaghetti and meatball platter consists of two pounds of pasta and a half-pound meatball. The oversize pizza is one-foot by two-feet. The eggplant parmigiana could feed a company of Italian soldiers. No one walks out of Buca di Beppo without a doggie bag. That's supposed to signal "value."

I wish the kitchen had made the flavors as big as the portions. But you don't get to be a "hot concept" chain without catering to the uninformed tastes of the white-bread masses.

Take the roasted-pepper appetizer, heaped with anchovies and garlic for no purpose except to be heaped with anchovies and garlic. The peppers, moreover, tasted marinated, not roasted. At $13.95, the "1983" salad must have a profit margin of $13.90. It's just a pile of useless greens, a few bits of olives, mortadella, peperoncini, onions and a dash of who-knows-what cheese.

The main dishes are so huge they practically have to be winched onto the table. But a favorable impression of the eggplant parmigiana won't survive your first bite. That's because the recipe could only have come from corporate headquarters: three stacks of breaded, fried eggplant; a bucket of diced tomatoes; a smidgen of tasteless cheese; and absolutely no Italian energy.

Chicken cacciatora won't remind you of how it's done in the old neighborhood, either, unless your old neighborhood was in Sweden. The bird itself is moist and tender, but what's with the mashed potatoes? This dish has all the ethnic spunk of Al Gore.

The cheese ravioli platter comes with 20, two-inch-by-two-inch pouches. They're coated with a meat sauce notable only for its institutional flair. Where are the scents of oregano, olive oil or wine here? Another pasta plate, rigatoni "country style," brings together tubes of pasta with white beans, onion, broccoli, tomato and the world's mildest sausage. Once again, I'd have preferred less heft, and more punch. That's how I felt about the seafood linguini, too. Sure, there were plenty of clams, squid and mussels, but they had no zest.

I've had apartments smaller than the box I took my forgettable thin-crust pizza home in. Why anyone would order pizza here I can't imagine.

Desserts are wretched. Whoever makes the cannoli deserves a visit from Luca Brasi. The cheesecake has a chemical aftertaste. And the massive bread pudding could sink a battleship.

Naturally, the drooling masses have been packing Buca di Beppo. But its popularity doesn't alter the fact that this place is a 1950s-style Italian-American theme restaurant, a sanitized fantasy with no redeeming culinary qualities.

What would Descartes have said about Buca di Beppo? My guess is Ego cogito, ergo exeo: "I think, therefore I'm outta here."

Cafe Terrace:
Seafood appetizer
Penne Sicilian-style
Spinach ravioli
Chocolate rum cake

Buca di Beppo:
Roasted peppers
Eggplant parmigiana
Chicken cacciatora



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