Cafe Reviews

Small Wonders

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.