Everyone knows about Pavlov's dogs: those canines that helped Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov demonstrate that the natural flow of saliva in Sparky's mouth could be induced by external stimuli, like a bell ringing. Pavlov referred to this as a "conditioned reflex," and his findings netted him a Nobel prize way back in 1904.
Pavlov's interest was actually in the physiology of digestion, so perhaps it's not at all strange to find certain restaurateurs using this same principle of a conditioned reflex in the design and execution of their eateries, sometimes with stunning success. Use a few key buzz words, mimic the requisite visual cues, and you could be the next Paul Fleming of P.F. Chang's fame! Don't worry that everything tastes like it came straight from Fry's frozen-food section. The less-than-discriminating masses will beat a path to your door, salivating all the way.
Such is my gripe with the recently opened Bada Boom Pasta Room at Third Avenue and Marshall Way in Old Town Scottsdale. Here owner Brian Roehrich, the fella behind Dos Gringos and Sugar Daddy's, has taken great pains to evoke goombah chic, as in the name of the place, which so obviously calls to mind Tony Soprano's strip club, the Bada Bing! (Where are HBO's lawyers when you need 'em?) By night, red lights rule outside on the large patio and inside in the cramped dining areas. Crimson velvet lines the walls, as does a series of mock mobster photos.
In case you're especially dense, the stereo's constantly pumping out Rosemary Clooney singing "Mambo Italiano," Louis Prima crooning "Buona Sera," and assorted songs from Rat Packers Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. There's a missed chance with the flat-screen TV over the dual open kitchen/bar in the main dining area. It might've been cool if there were flicks like the original Ocean's Eleven, or maybe Martin Scorsese's Casino or GoodFellas running on it. But this would require an ounce of originality on someone's part, I suppose. What we get instead are sporting events, rather than, say, Frank and the boys in Robin and the 7 Hoods.
I'm hardly hostile to this sort of shtick when done right. After all, everyone's fave in town, Durant's, authentically reflects the notion of class born of the late Jack Durant's checkered past, albeit in the form of a chophouse. Thing is, you can imagine the Chairman of the Board sitting down for a steak at the Doo-rants. (Ol' Blue Eyes actually may have done so back in the day, as far as I know.) But Sinatra never would have set foot inside some tourist trap like Bada Boom. Even if you got him past the front door, what passes for Italian cuisine here probably would've had him feeding the cook a hand sandwich. Bada Boom's pasta barely overtakes the Olive Garden or the Macaroni Grill, capisce? Why anyone would choose to dine here given the plethora of superior alternatives in Scottsdale and beyond, I can only ascribe to folks' being suckered in by Bada Boom's newness and its theme, the latter being the functional equivalent of Pavlov's bell.
"Pathetic" and "embarrassing" are the two adjectives that best describe Bada Boom's Caprese salad. Usually, Caprese is such a culinary "gimme" that it takes real effort to screw it up, so Bada Boom deserves credit for achieving the near-impossible. All you need is some fresh mozzarella and tomatoes, a little basil, and a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil, but BB's Caprese is bada-bad: three tiny patties of mozzarella paired with three still-green tomatoes, drowned in enough balsamic vinegar to kill off the taste of both. More palatable versions are as common in town as drive-through liquor stores.
I preferred the shrimp scampi wrapped in pancetta, but just three medium-to-large-size crustaceans on a $12 plate (the same price as many of the entrees)? Try throwing a couple more on the barbie next time, if you're interested in giving people their money's worth. I'll cut BB some slack on its calamari fra diavolo, though. It's only $10 for a nice-size portion, and the calamari were of far better quality than I've had lately. The weak point was the sauce. Too much gunk in it, and oddly smoky, though just the right amount of red pepper flakes.
One big, pudgy thumbs down for the Caesar salad. The romaine tasted as if it had come from one of those pre-mix plastic bags, and the dressing was weak and unappetizing. I had a number of pastas, and all of them were a bit like gnawing on a Pirelli tire. The penne especially required extreme mastication to swallow, and the toppings didn't aid in making those semolina tubes any more appetizing. When I had them with chicken in a pink-vodka sauce (i.e., "Mr. Pink's Pasta," a nod to Reservoir Dogs, natch), the clucker flesh was so bland and the sauce so overwhelmed by crushed red chile, the lot of it was nearly inedible. BB's Bolognese beat out Mr. Pink, as far as being gustable, but there was a peculiar, unpleasant aftertaste to this veal-sirloin-sausage combo, which did not endear me to it.
The spaghetti with meatballs and marinara was okay, save for the three mushy meatballs, which could be mistaken for Hamburger Helper minus the meat. As for the Tuscan linguini, into which was tossed the same chicken as Mr. Pink, along with escarole and white beans, it was inoffensive, yet highly forgettable.
The desserts I attempted cemented my displeasure after the manner, some might say, of Jimmy Hoffa's corpse. The tiramisu, served in a big martini glass, only turned interesting toward the bottom, where all the liquor had accumulated, unlike the tiramisu I recently had over at Radda in north Scottsdale, where you could taste the liquor throughout. Cathy's Rum Cake, acquired from the local business of the same name, reminded me of an office birthday cake: three layers covered in white icing, the layer in the middle being cappuccino-flavored. Alas, the taste of rum was so slight, you wonder why Cathy even bothered. I mean, when I order rum cake, I want to taste the rum, lady. Otherwise, what's the point?
Rum cake with precious little rum, and a "mob" eatery without the Eye-tie eats to match. Pavlov would be proud of each experiment. But as far as I'm concerned, they're both strictly for the dogs.