D'Atri's Cinema Paradiso, 10303 North Scottsdale Road (Windmill Plaza), Scottsdale, 480-348-0377. Hours: Lunch, Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner, Tuesday through Saturday, 5 to 9 p.m.; closed Sunday and Monday.
Isn't it wonderful to live in a city teeming with cafes? Cafe life is so vibrant, just great for people-watching: intellectuals plotting the next revolution over espresso; artists arguing about their work over a light meal; down-and-outers nursing their beers; students earnestly reading their books; lovers nuzzling in a corner; nine-to-fivers mixing with their pals; good-timers schmoozing at the bar. Peer into a cafe window, and you'll see a bustling, modern urban tableau.
Of course, you'd better be living someplace other than here. That's because in this town, the cafe scene is about as lively as a snowbird trailer park in August.
In their own small ways, however, a couple of Scottsdale places are trying to do something about it. No, Jan D'Atri's Cinema Paradiso and Café Forté won't remind anyone of Les Deux Magots in Paris. But if you can work your way past the high Scottsdale prices, you'll find cozy spots to linger over a bite and a drink.
D'Atri, a veteran of the Phoenix food scene who runs a company that makes sausage and biscotti, branched out into the cafe business about a year ago. She branched out in a very unlikely location: the sprawling commercial plaza at the southeast corner of Scottsdale Road and Shea Boulevard. The cafe occupies a storefront that last housed a karate studio.
It's a storefront that's both remote and pedestrian-unfriendly, better suited for a bookie operation than a cafe. (You can't see D'Atri's until you enter the massive parking lot and drive right in front of it.) When I walked in, I half-expected to find Amelia Earhart, Jimmy Hoffa and Elvis sharing a table and sipping espresso, confident that their whereabouts would continue to remain a secret.
What I actually found was no less surprising: a great-looking place. True, D'Atri's looks more like somebody's idealized conception of a cafe than it does an actual cafe, but that's not a knock. Heavy wood tables and substantial chairs lined with thick cushions furnish old-fashioned touches. So do the green-checked curtains, tied back with twine; the display bottles of olives, vinegar and oils by the kitchen; and the dessert case, on which about a dozen jars of D'Atri biscotti are perched.
But there's nothing old-fashioned about the rest of the fanciful decor. There's a lovely, curving sit-down counter, a tandem bike, religious pictures, a cookbook display, klieg lights and a neon "Cinema Paradiso" sign on the wall. Each table's salt, pepper, sugar and candle, meanwhile, are stored in a "basket" of hardened bread. (On one visit, it looked as if a previous customer had taken a nibble, not a good idea.)
Best of all, there's the proprietor herself, a hands-on owner who energetically works the room. Sometimes, when the spirit moves her, she even hauls out her accordion and squeezes away, while happy patrons lift their voices. Warning: Hearing "The Impossible Dream" sung to accordion accompaniment during dinner may not be everyone's idea of a dream come true. But I thought the proceedings had an appealingly unforced charm.
The food is almost as charming as the setting and atmosphere. The two soups are plenty ample and plenty good. The chicken and pastina has real homemade quality. The minestrone is even better, handsomely stocked with beans, carrot and pasta.
If your entire group is on the protein diet, the antipasto platter is just what the doctor ordered. It features six kinds of meat: saucisson, ham, three kinds of salami and, believe it or not, pastrami. Two nondescript sliced cheeses also make an appearance. I'd have preferred a hunk of the parmigiano-Reggiano stored in the display case. But this cheese seems part of the decor, not part of the cuisine. How come it never showed up in any of the dishes?
Instead of paying for a first course, you can edge into the meal with the freebie salad that accompanies dinner. It's first-rate, dressed with a vinaigrette that's tasty enough to bottle.
The small menu features homemade pastas and sandwiches. An occasional special, artichoke pesto ravioli, delivers all you could hope for in terms of flavor. Too bad these tough-around-the-edges pasta pouches were plucked out of boiling water before they'd gotten within hailing distance of al dente.
Lasagna, though, is right on target -- the homemade noodles make a real difference. So does the scrumptious meat sauce, which the kitchen will pour over the lasagna wedge on request. The gnocchi, potato-flour dumplings coated with a brawny pesto sauce, are also well-crafted.
Two dishes stand out. The fettuccine has just the right texture, underscored perfectly by a butter and Parmesan cheese sauce. And the skewers of grilled sausage and chicken, on a bed of fettuccine, announce the power of rustic simplicity.
Two dishes to avoid: The meatballs in the spaghetti and meatballs are loaded with salt, and have an off-putting texture. The greasy, chewy pork chop, inexplicably served without rice, potatoes or pasta, needs a major overhaul.
Panini sandwiches are another option. They're outstanding, too: homemade bread stuffed with a variety of fillings, then grilled in a sandwich press. I'm partial to the veggie model, a mix of eggplant, zucchini, mushrooms, peppers and onion that cries out for a dollop of goat cheese. The chicken panini is equally impressive: poultry steeped in wine and garlic, teamed with cheese and peppers.
The dessert list isn't very deep, but it's strong. Mom would be proud of the homemade fruit pies -- apple, peach, blueberry. The triple fudge brownie is as rich and chocolaty as you could want. And D'Atri's admirable biscotti make lingering over espresso even more fun. But one part of this cafe experience isn't so delightful -- stiff prices. Six-dollar soups, eight-dollar sandwiches, 15-dollar lasagna and three-dollar espresso can take the edge off an evening's gaiety pretty quickly. D'Atri's Cinema Paradiso has a lot of good things working for it. There's really nothing like it in the neighborhood. The food, setting and atmosphere are already there. So why not make the experience a little more affordable and give folks another reason to come, instead of giving them an excuse to stay away?
Café Forté, 7032 East Main, Scottsdale, 480-994-1331. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner, Thursday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.
Set in Scottsdale's Art Gallery district, Café Forté might remind you of a friendly neighborhood spot in SoHo or Greenwich Village. That's not surprising: The four women proprietors know what it takes, having operated a dessert cafe in the Big Apple for 18 years before moving here.
It's a cute, laid-back place, the walls done up in soothing desert colors, hung with art for sale. Judy Garland, Lena Horne and Dean Martin croon softly in the background. The back hallway is lined with arresting photos of New York City landmarks. But the ladies had nothing to do with the cafe's best touch: real, live pedestrian traffic, marching up and down the block. What a nice change of pace to look through a restaurant window in this town and see signs of urban life, instead of a parking lot.
Café Forté has the good sense to get its bread from the Arizona Bread Company, so you'll need all your will power to avoid buttering up a loaf of ciabatta, drinking a glass of wine and calling it a night.
A few appetizers provide diversion. Baked Brie, swathed in a light puff pastry and surrounded by apples, is a pleasant nosh. A salad of romaine, arugula, Gorgonzola and walnuts benefits from a zesty Dijon vinaigrette. The only shortcoming with the artichoke-studded spinach dip is that there isn't seven bucks enough of it.
Don't get your hopes up over the tomato topped with fresh mozzarella. I ordered this it's-on-every-menu starter to see what kind of tomatoes I'd get in November. The answer: tasteless.
The entrees, as comfortable as the setting, are a mixed lot. Someone in the kitchen clearly knows what to do with fish. Salmon comes crusted with enough horseradish to clear the sinuses of everyone at your table, even if all they do is take a whiff. But I really enjoyed the sharp flavor. And a veggie-flecked brown rice pilaf makes just the right side. Orange roughy also shows spunk, punched up with olives and capers, and served atop a bed of thick mashed potatoes.
Two pasta dishes weren't to my taste, but not everyone may share my views. I found the homemade lasagna so impossibly rich and heavy that no Italian flavor could come through. And the wild mushroom ravioli had a one-dimensional intensity that caused me to lose interest after just a few bites.
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Carnivores with small appetites can turn confidently to the meat loaf. They'll get a few dainty slices -- no hulking slab of beef here -- sparked with an up-to-date wine sauce. But no appetite, big or small, ought to turn to the sliced sirloin steak. A few ounces of undistinguished meat, sprinkled with a few crumbs of Gorgonzola and finished in a drab wine sauce, don't nearly add up to $19 of pleasure. I knew this platter was in trouble when I ignored the steak to work on the veggies it came with.
The kitchen also makes sandwiches. The sliced sirloin steak was no better on a baguette than it was on a plate. But Café Forté's version of a Cuban sandwich -- an oven-baked baguette filled with ham, cheese and roast pork, served with seasoned waffle fries -- hit my buttons. It also hit my wallet. Twelve dollars for a sandwich? Even in Scottsdale, that's a stretch.
Homemade desserts are temptingly displayed in a glass case, and the temptation is worth yielding to. Berry cobbler, carrot cake, pecan pie and the chocolate tart end dinner on a high note.
Caf Fort has most of the right cafe instincts. A small kitchen tune-up, I think, would make those instincts even more apparent.