Cafe Reviews

Jan Session

Who goes to an airport to eat unless they have to? Apparently, more people than we realize. There's a national trend brewing of airports supplementing hot dogs with stuff we actually want, including a new Wolfgang Puck eatery at Chicago's O'Hare, Sylvia's Soul Food of Harlem at JFK International Airport, and the high-end Cibo at Philadelphia International. Since September, travelers at La Guardia even have been able to enjoy first-class cuisine at Figs, a New York outpost of noted Boston chef Todd English's Mediterranean cafe.

That wave hasn't hit Sky Harbor yet, but it has landed at the Scottsdale Municipal Airport. Three months ago brought us the opening of D'Atri's, courtesy of the Valley's own Channel 3 celebrity Jan D'Atri. In her newest incarnation, D'Atri continues to crank out the same delicious home-style Italian food that made her first restaurant -- Cinema Paradiso -- a success. The new D'Atri's is worth the trip to the airport, even if we're only dreaming of leaving town.

Most Valley residents know D'Atri as a longtime diva of Channel 3's PM Magazine show, and as current host of A Brighter Day. She's also an avid aviator, a passionate fly fisher, an accordion and piano player and a former Smitty's grocery store spokesperson. She markets her own line of Italian sausages and biscotti, too -- sausages made from her mother's recipe and said to be so good that Elvis used to have them flown in. During her free time, she manages to care for a mini-zoo of 14 abandoned and adopted creatures: a burro, mustang, pygmy goat, two Australian shepherds, eight birds and a cat. (Since New Times reported in 1999 that she was harboring a baby goat in Paradiso's kitchen, though, the animals now stay at home.)

When the owner of Scottsdale Airport's former restaurant, The Left Seat, died last year, D'Atri made a successful bid on the space. She closed Paradiso and turned it into a catering company and private party room.

So why didn't D'Atri choose Sky Harbor for her new enterprise? Her new location is an unlikely one, tucked inside the tiny Scottsdale terminal, next to the waiting room and the obligatory stacks of brochures touting Arizona's natural treasures -- the Grand Canyon, Jeep tours and Rainforest Cafe at Arizona Mills.

Can you say "Cessna Citation V Ultra"? There's no Southwest Airlines cattle call at the Scottsdale Airport. This place caters only to the wealthiest aviators and their passengers. People passing through this portal appreciate the finer things, and aren't reluctant to pay for them.

The location's actually a good fit, since if there was a stumble in D'Atri's previous eatery, it was in the price tag. Here, the high prices are repeated, yet given the new setting, they're more easily forgiven. While the original D'Atri's served consistently above-average meals, $12 luncheon pastas, $15 lasagna dinners and $3.50 cappuccinos compromised its "neighborhood cafe" countenance. This from a place so cozy-casual that one time I ate there, I found a baseball cap slung over the back of my chair, but was asked if I could please just leave it, because the regular patron who forgot it probably would soon return.

The new D'Atri's is a step up in decor, graduated from cafe to full-fledged restaurant -- maitre d', votive candles, white tablecloths and all. The menu has been expanded, with additions such as rack of lamb, shrimp and scallop skewers and filet mignon. While I still won't be paying $11.95 for a jumbo shrimp cocktail, $8.95 for a buffalo mozzarella and tomato salad or $14.95 for chicken and sausage chunks on a bed of Parmesan-and-butter-draped fettuccine, now the structure makes more sense. Because while Cessna owners subsidize the upscale setting, paying $21.95 for veal scallopine, the rest of us can take advantage of D'Atri's true specialties for a more reasonable price: panini sandwiches, pasta and sausage.

What an airport it is. Imagine pulling up to a parking space at the curb. Clusters of flowers bloom along the few steps up to the front doors. There's even a Texaco station behind a fence to the right, for convenient private-jet refueling. The next time I buy a Cessna, I'm stabling it here.

It would be easy to keep an eye on my flying machine, given D'Atri's floor-to-ceiling windows, separated from the tarmac only by a slender patio laced with decorative iron scrolls. Pleasant distractions include a flickering fireplace, comfortable booths, a centerpiece bar and cute ceramic airplanes placed on our table and stuffed with sugar packets. On some nights, the decor includes D'Atri, who has my dining companion melting with her accordion rendition of "Moonlight Sonata."

All my attention is focused on my entree-size pasta fagioli, however, a sultry soup of elbow macaroni, Northern white beans, pinto beans and sausage chunks. The broth has been flavored with ham hocks, sprinkled with fresh parsley and decorated with a few pieces of toasted bruschetta. Good, filling stuff for under six bucks.