To hear many native New Yorkers talk about it, you'd think they invented neighborhood-style Italian food. From antipasto to baked pasta, lasagna to ravioli and, of course, pizza, nobody does it better than the folks in the Big Apple.
What gives? It's not as if the requirements for back-East-style Italian meals are all that complicated: predictable, unpretentious recipes; massive portions; and bargain prices. But wander through the many, many casual Italian eateries around the Valley, and you're sure to hear that low grumble: It's just not like it is back home.
Thank goodness. These people seem to forget that physical discomfort also is a big part of authentic New York dining. Real neighborhood eateries there jam tables so closely together that the waiters literally have to pull tables into the aisles to seat their customers. Once they slide the table back in, don't plan on moving until the check is paid. Gruff -- no, let's be honest -- rude service is overlooked. Your hard-earned money at most casual places may earn you a fine meal, but rarely a smile.
Such antics won't fly in Phoenix, however. Even the best food won't make it in this kinder, gentler Valley, not if we have to eat with our knees tucked under our chins and apologize when asking for extra napkins. Remember Carnegie Deli, which slunk away in embarrassment after a short, snotty run in the Galleria?
Which is why it's such a pleasure to find that traditional, back-East-style Italian food is indeed available in the Valley, without the suffering on the side. New York's Best Italian Bistro has brought us only the best of Gotham, while leaving the rest behind.
All the right ingredients are in attendance at this cozy place. The setting's surprising, to be sure, slipped to the side of a parking lot at the end of the runway at Scottsdale Airpark. Folks are settled in under umbrellas at patio tables, their conversation interrupted periodically by the roar of a jet or the squawk of the PA calling them to pick up their meals at the counter inside.
The scenario's downright shocking when the door opens, however -- this is no toss-away airport joint, but a real restaurant. Coolly elegant taupe tones flavor floors and walls, offset with black tabletops and eclectic poster art. Tables are spaciously set. Most of the decor's ambiance comes from an open kitchen, with exposed stainless steel cooking stations. Guests can order at a marble counter for food to go or for patio dining; if you're looking to make an evening of it, table service is quick and friendly. Takeout's another popular option, to witness the steady stream of boxes and bags leaving cradled in customers' arms.
When the weather's nice, New York's Best runway-side patio offers a touch of big-city atmosphere. Toss in a couple of rats scurrying by, and we might well be dining in a concrete jungle cafe instead of a side-road eatery in one of the Valley's more expensive neighborhoods. Scottsdale doesn't admit to having any vermin (four-legged, at least), but if it did, this patio would be a great place for them to hang and forage -- it takes staff a little too long to venture out and clean up the large quantities of leftovers that collect.
But we are in Scottsdale, and parts of New York's Best's menu reflect the yuppification. The like-mama-used-to-make favorites are there, including spaghetti and meatballs, baked ziti, chicken Parmigiana and homemade sausage. The neighborhood favorites are out in full force, such as calzones, pizzas, cold subs, hot subs and cheese steaks. Yet at dinner, things get a little more dressy -- orecchietti alla vodka, shrimp scampi linguine, gnocchi pomodoro. Some of the best dishes, any time of the day, are the specials.
One lunch of the day selection, for example, is an absolutely huge and decadent penne all'Arrabbiata. Arrabbiata means angry, and, in this case, "God, you're beautiful when you're angry." A simple guttural blend of garlic and blizzards of hot red pepper, this sauce packs a punch, creating an olive-oily liquid fire doused with sweet chunky tomato. The kitchen has added sliced herbed sausage and mushrooms today, for an easily two-meal feast for just $6.95. A side salad, offered for half-price with the pasta, is a remarkable plate at $1.50, combining loads of mixed greens, including red leaf and fresh spinach with sliced tomato, black olives, purple cabbage and onion. The salad comes with two thick, hoagie-length pieces of garlic bread, another freebie.
On the dinner menu, Mediterranean salad is listed as an appetizer serving two. I haven't tried it for supper. But I can tell you that as a lunch special, even when priced $3 less, it's an entree serving two. Paired with two huge, grilled chicken breasts for an extra two bucks, it's more than even the burliest binger could comfortably finish. Not that we don't try -- dipping our forks in an artful tumble of crisp greens, moist artichoke hearts, blissfully bitter olives and marinated red peppers.
Subs are listed only on the lunch menu, but diners could probably sweet talk New York's Best's owners into bringing them virtually anything they want, any time of day. The sandwiches are worth asking about: a TNT is a hearty munch of ham, salami, capicolla and provolone; there's no stinting on the rib eye in the "special" cheese steak (topped with mushrooms, green peppers and onion); and the meatball sub swoons with herby moist beef bundles under a drape of mozzarella. One calzone, though, isn't the hefty, cheese-oozing model I anticipate. A hippie roll looks more like a Pillsbury dough wrap, bringing laced bread meagerly stuffed with spicy tomato sauce, big slabs of green pepper and onion and mild sausage. Read the fine print on the menu -- folks looking for cheese need to order the special.
There's no missing the cheese on the New York combo traditional pizza, however, even buried as it is under mounds of fresh peppers, mushrooms, black olives, onion, thin-sliced sausage and pepperoni.
When the weather unexpectedly turns, spitting droplets of rain and putting a chill in the air, guests can find solace in New York's Best's softly lit interior. There are few better things in life than staving off hunger with bites of sausage stew, thick with chunky tomato, orzo and celery. Delightfully salty split pea is another gem -- it's a swanky soup with firm legumes, carrot nibblets and tiny cubes of ham.
Soup bowls licked clean, bistro antipasto is a fine segue into the main courses. It's a traditional blend: mounds of romaine topped with thin wheels of pepperocini, ham, capicolla, salami and mozzarella, accented with the usual olives, artichoke hearts and roasted peppers. A caveat, though -- squares of hard Parmesan are a nice thought, but the portion's actually too generous, with the sharp-flavored cheese too aggressive for the mild salad. Zuppe di cozze is another fine lead-in, sparking taste buds with a dozen mussels simmered in a tomato brandy sauce and dashed aggressively with red pepper (homemade focaccia served alongside makes for fine dipping).
One of the fancier menu items here is orecchietti alla vodka, and it's the only one I wouldn't order again. The ear lobe-shaped pasta is too soft and turns mushy under a heavy coating of vodka cream sauce that tastes mainly of tomato. Baked with twigs of grilled chicken and topped with mozzarella, it loses appeal after a few bites. Linguini alle vongole is much better, keeping things simple with loads of fresh clams in my choice of red sauce. The thick noodles hold up well with the robust, almost buttery broth and tender, chopped seafood.
Need another reminder we're in the Valley, and not back East? New York's Best treats customers like friends. On one rainy evening, I'm wavering between eggplant Parmigiana and veal marsala -- the waiter recommends the veal Sicilian for a taste of both, promising such satisfaction that if I'm not thrilled, he'll buy me anything else on the menu. Best of all, the owner personally double-checks my order to make sure nothing's missing (critical on to-go orders, but so few restaurants take the time).
Nothing's missing from this meal. Certainly not flavor, packed in the soup of the day, Manhattan clam chowder. Good, old-fashioned olive oil swirls in the broth, studded with seafood, potato, tomato and celery.
The menu lists its lighter "gourmet" pizzas as appetizers, but who are they kidding? The small 10-inch pasta pie is as filling as it is delicious, groaning with ziti, fresh herb tomato sauce and a veil of mozzarella over a bubbly crust. A cannelloni entree actually is lighter, three pasta tubes filled with ground veal, ricotta and fresh spinach under a sweet tomato basil sauce and melted fontina cheese.
Lasagna is perfect comfort food, no matter the neighborhood, and New York's Best is among the best. The massive creation is traditional all the way, layering pasta with ground beef, ricotta, tomato sauce and mozzarella, then baking it all in a terra-cotta dish. It's fabulous. And true to the waiter's word, so is the veal Sicilian -- another layered casserole boasting thin-sliced eggplant, pounded and breaded veal, mozzarella and a chubby tomato purée.
No self-respecting East Coast Italian place would cut corners on dessert, and New York's Best makes its confections daily. Tiramisu is an absolute dream, lush with mascarpone, and with ladyfingers soaked in rum and espresso under a dusting of cocoa powder.
New York's Best may not be exactly like it is "back home," but that's a good thing. Great food is one thing, but so is ambiance and service, and this place makes the best a little better.
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