Cafe Reviews

Bright Lights, Baked Ziti

If you're the sort of person who takes dining out seriously enough to read restaurant columns (and if you're not, what are you doing here?), you've probably dreamed of finding that slightly out-of-the-way, slightly undiscovered, slightly scintillating little spot that's going to change your dining life forever. Pssst, Sorrento Restaurant and Bar is exactly what you've been hoping for.

Now, please, be careful. There are at least five restaurants in the Valley with the word Sorrento in their name. As it turns out, four of these are affiliated, and we will deal with these lesser lights in the second half of this review.

The Sorrento we're talking about first is a one-of-a-kind wonder up on the southwest corner of Cave Creek and Bell Roads. You'll drive by the ABCO plaza a zillion times without noticing the restaurant. In fact, so incongruous is this gastronomically ambitious establishment amidst its urban-sprawl surroundings that the owners are compelled to keep a sign in the window that reads "We do not serve pizza."

If this notice seems a little standoffish, the feeling is immediately dispelled once you're inside. Although it's really just a mall "box," the navy blue color scheme, the extensive use of mirror and glass, the sophisticated breakfront use of blinds and planters, all punctuated with low-level lighting and table candlelight, establish an intimate hideaway ambiance. With Connie Francis, Jerry Vale and an assortment of operatic tenors taking turns on the tape, the overall effect is very romantic and inviting.

"Buona sera," booms our beaming host before our heels have had a chance to cool. Although he can find no record of our reservation, he affably informs us that since we are such nice people he is going to seat us in "booth one." I suspect every booth in the place is "booth one," but I love this guy's style.

Sorrento proves to be one of those perfect extended-Italian-family affairs. With first-generation restaurant roots in Italy, and second-generation restaurant roots in New York, this is an undeniably talented tribe. The dads manage the place and run the dining room, the moms and an octogenarian grandmom do the cooking, and the kids (including one young Ralph Macchio look-alike who does as deft a job of lighting a customer's cigarette as I've ever seen) help to wait and bus tables.

"They live here," reports our nonrelated waiter, although the pride of the place has clearly rubbed off on him, too.

When it comes to what the ladies of the casa are cooking up in the kitchen, there is indeed much to be proud of. The menu is slanted toward seafood and premise-made pasta, although such classic veal and chicken preparations as parmigiana, marsala, picata and cacciatore also dot the menu. If there is a shortcoming in the listings, it's the extremely limited list of appetizers and salads, although the massive entree portion sizes and the endless availability of homemade garlic-buttered crusty rolls guarantee that this is not a severe restriction.

Our waiter endorses Veal Marsala as one entree selection, pointing out that Sorrento uses real prosciutto in the preparation. Purists will point out that this makes the dish a saltimbocca, but purists rarely have much fun. Whatever they wish to call this dish, the pleasure is unquestionably in the partaking of a generous portion of pounded veal topped with an equally generous ration of prosciutto, all buried under sauteed mushrooms and swimming in a buttery rich and divinely sweet marsala sauce.

At Sorrento, veal and chicken dishes are offered with an extensive choice of pasta side dishes, and we select Tortellini Alfredo. Although the beautifully made and expertly cooked stuffed pasta is perhaps a touch on the bland side, the sauce is very texturally appealing (neither too runny nor too pasty-thick) and the dish blooms nicely with the addition of pepper and freshly grated parmesan. Considering that soup or salad also comes with this order, there's certainly more than enough food to stem the staunchest of appetites, even without an appetizer order.

Even though the marsala is marvelous, the dish that makes this meal truly memorable is Gnocchi with Braciola. The Sorrento gnocchi are the tenderest and lightest little potato dumplings that it's ever been my pleasure to come across. The braciola, a flattened piece of flank steak rolled around a mixture of spinach, breadcrumbs, chopped eggs, garlic and cracked pepper, then braised in tomato sauce, is likewise as tempting a version of this dish as you may hope to find.

Beyond the namesake parts of this dish, there's the special thrill of its tomato sauce. This is sauce as finely tuned as the engine of an expensive Italian sports car. Despite the vaguest whispers of garlic, oregano, fennel, pepper et al., nothing is allowed to steer the sauce too far away from the predominant push of Italian plum tomatoes. It is a masterwork.

"My taste buds are dancing," remarks my guest with obviously sincere joy.
The evening yields additional delights: an expertly selected and reasonably priced Italian wine list; a delicious dessert cannoli with a perfectly balanced ricotta cheese-whipped cream filling; a great cup of coffee. Throughout the evening our host returns to the table to take stock of our gastronomic satisfaction and to determine if we are happy with the current thermostat adjustment. Our exit is as graciously hailed as our arrival.

I depart the restaurant with the sole regret that this place has been open for eight years and I've never heard anyone mention it. I suppose special little undiscovered places by definition have to be relatively unknown. To help preserve the mystique, the only person I'm going to tell about it is you.

"Are you affiliated with the Sorrento restaurant on Bell Road?"

I am on the phone with a young woman who is taking my reservation for dinner at Sorrento's Italian Kitchen, in west Mesa. There is also a Sorrento's Italian Kitchen in east Mesa and another one in Chandler. The young woman explains that all three of these are the offspring of the original Sorrento's, a bunkerish-looking building that's been serving it up Sicilian-style forever on 16th Street near Thomas Road in Phoenix.

"They went out of business, I'm pretty sure," is the young woman's response to my question.

I can't help wondering if this is a premeditated or coached response. Is someone in the Sorrento's Italian Kitchen organization (hereafter referred to as SIK) a little threatened by the competition? If it's true, it's quite understandable.

To be scrupulously fair, SIK is not trying to inhabit the same market niche as Sorrento. Although visitors from Mars stopping by for manicotti might see no difference at all between the two menus, it will be clear to the casual Earth observer that SIK is the far less ambitious effort. With its paper menus, its plastic red and white tablecloths and its prices that run about half those of identically named dishes at Sorrento, SIK is clearly catering to a more casual crowd.

Why, SIK even serves pizza.
It's pretty good stuff too, canned mushrooms notwithstanding. The crust is that crispy hearth-baked kind that's still just thick enough to be chewy in the middle. There's a big molten mass of cheese on each slice and the pizza sauce is first-rate.

SIK does a nice job with bread-type things in general, knocking out excellent calzones and devoting far more attention to the quality of the bread used in submarine sandwiches than most of its competitors. Pasta dishes are at least adequate and sometimes, as in the case of the premise-made ravioli, they're very good. Casserole-baked specialties, in particular, are served in amounts that are just humongous.

Again in the name of scrupulous fairness, there are also some real culinary clunkers. Cavatelli, the SIK version of gnocchi, has a consistency somewhere between raw dough and chewing gum. Chicken scallopini, a single semipounded skinless breast, puts up a tussle with the knife and bleeds so much water into its sauce that it's a little like eating Italian chicken breast soup.

In all, I'd be happy to give this place a mild recommendation on the basis of price/value and let it go at that. It's just that I received such inexcusably poor service during both my visits to SIK that I cannot resist a print rap of the knuckles. How am I to let a restaurant off the hook when: It takes 33 minutes from the time I order it to receive a slice of pizza? A check is presented when my guest and I are barely halfway through our dinner entrees?

A waitress tells me that the restaurant stops brewing coffee at 8:15 p.m., 45 minutes before the posted closing time?

The same waitress returns a few minutes after having taken a dessert order to report that the kitchen has run out of cannoli mix?

There's more, but you get the idea. Unless SIK management stops letting impatient and inhospitable youngsters run its dining rooms, there's only one Sorrento restaurant in this town that I'm willing to endorse. And it's not one of the Italian Kitchens.

Sorry-ento about that.