First Taste

First Taste: Pomodoro Italian Grill & Seafood, Or Fine Dining in the Old West

Lauren Cusimano
Pomodoro Italian Grill & Seafood in downtown Cave Creek.
When a new spot opens in town, we're eager to check it out, let you know our initial impressions, share a few photos, and dish about some menu items. First Taste, as the name implies, is not a full-blown review, but instead, a peek inside restaurants that have just opened — an occasion to sample a few items and satisfy curiosities (both yours and ours).

Restaurant: Pomodoro Italian Grill & Seafood
Location: 6710 East Cave Creek Road, Cave Creek
Eats: Upscale Italian fare, wine, and craft cocktails
Open: About one month
Price: $$$
Hours: 3 to 9 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday, 9 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday

Upon walking in, the first thing you might notice is how — thank goodness — the owners of Pomodoro Italian Grill & Seafood kept some of the fixtures from Cartwright’s Modern Cuisine, like the spindly, frozen wood décor that divides the bar area from the dining room.

click to enlarge
The lavender-hued Viola Vesper.
Lauren Cusimano
This adobe-style building along Cave Creek Road in downtown Cave Creek’s culinary strip, and former home of Cartwright’s, is now Pomodoro. The new Italian restaurant is run by Philip Igneri, Federico Venturini, and Executive Chef Viola Tagliaferri (those last two also operate Pizzicata in neighboring Carefree).

You might also notice the white tablecloths. This spot remains an upscale dinner option in something of an Old West town. This is not a southern Italian, red-sauce joint, but instead a sleek, dim, dining experience. (Unless you sit at the bar, which is like an entirely different restaurant with a flatscreen, higher-volume conversations, and some happy hour deals.)

In the dining room, though, a masked server appears out of the darkness to pour everyone in your party a short glass of prosecco to toast to your health. That’s quickly followed by a plate of Gnocco Fritto, or little pillows of just-baked dough served with marinara sauce. Warm, good, a perfect starter.

Every new restaurant on earth has a craft cocktail menu, and Pomodoro is no exception. Options here include cutely named drinks like the Coco Chanel Cosmo, Capone’s Manhattan, and Gotta Be Illegal.

We ended up going with one of the more scenic options, the Viola Vesper, an extremely chilled, lavender-hued martini garnished with a lemon peel. It was subtly sweet and went down a little too easy. While the cocktails menu handed out at the restaurant details its ingredients, the online menu simply describes this drink as, “Stir, stir, stirred! Never shaken. We will right Bond's folly.” (Somewhere, Timothy Dalton just looked up from his newspaper.)

click to enlarge
The Frittura Di Mare gets the brown paper bag treatment.
Lauren Cusimano
The antipasti selection includes enticing options like zucchini flowers stuffed with goat cheese, scallops, and a savory cannoli. But it's hard to resist any Italian restaurant’s rendition of calamari.

The Frittura Di Mare here is hand-battered, piping-hot calamari and shrimp served with a cup of marinara. It’s plated adorably in a rolled-down brown paper bag, which, like a to-go Philly cheesesteak, slowly displays larger and larger grease stains as the appetizer is picked over. The calamari was light on the breading and salty; pretty good, though no one was moaning in delight. The shrimp was a great accompaniment here, making us wish more places threw in shellfish with their calamari orders.

Pomodoro’s entrée menu lists pasta, meat, and seafood dishes — a comfortable amount of options without going nuts. We went with two styles of veal, piccata and marsala, and the lobster ravioli.

click to enlarge
The ravioli lobster.
Lauren Cusimano
The ravioli lobster dish was a lengthy, narrow plate strewn with imperfect ravioli pillows (a great sign), plopped upon with a pink vodka sauce, and sprinkled with little chunks of lobster meat and shredded herb. It could have used a little more lobster — lobster being in the name of the dish and all — and an extra sprinkling of salt to help the vodka sauce really pop. But this was a solid dish. (The remaining two ravioli were eaten cold out of the to-go box hours later; no complaints.)

The veal cutlets were scaloppini, thin and flat but wide cuts. The marsala was topped with marsala wine and a good amount of mushrooms, the piccata with white wine and lemon sauce, and loads of capers. Both cuts were extremely tender.

The veal dishes here are sided with garlic and oil spaghetti. No thick toppings or heavy pastes; just the thin, somewhat spicy oil sauce. Speaking frankly, I could have taken down an entire popcorn bowl’s worth of this pasta side. The noodles were ideally cooked, and that mysteriously seasoned sauce was just sensational.

click to enlarge
The veal marsala with garlic and oil spaghetti.
Lauren Cusimano
This food is not too heavy, despite the pasta and protein, meaning: We were open to receiving a dessert menu.

It was difficult to resist ordering the tiramisu and apple almond cake (especially in October), but divine intervention must have played a role in us ordering the cannoli — because it was maybe the highlight of the meal.

Four cannoli arrived log cabin-style, little crunchy cinnamon tubes packed with ricotta cream, the ends ground into cropped pistachio and drizzled heavily with what was maybe a raspberry syrup. The dessert was gorgeously plated, topped with blueberries, accompanied by whipped cream, a circling of that sweet syrup, and a heavy dusting of powdered sugar.

click to enlarge
The cannoli.
Lauren Cusimano
This is a fantastic dessert, something worth stopping in for even if you’ve had dinner elsewhere.

The service was warm and fantastic. Your questions will be answered. Your silverware will be changed with every course. You will not be held check hostage. And, if your grandfather should say something complimentary in Italian, as mine did, you might catch the attention of owner Federico Venturini, who will ask about your meal, what your last name is, and where your family is from.

Apart from the back windows opening to the untouched desert landscape and the carried-over Southwestern décor, you might forget you're a few paces from places like Buffalo Chip Saloon and Harold’s Cave Creek Corral. While those places are appropriate (and a hell of a lot of fun), Pomodoro restores balance in Cave Creek, a gap left by Cartwright’s.

Though that isn’t to say this place doesn’t have its own identity already.