Great scientific theories that upset conventional thinking require lots of research before the world accepts them.
Darwin's theory of evolution was once considered blasphemous. Freud's theory of the unconscious was shocking in its day.
Almost 200 years ago, a noted French gastronome had his own remarkable theoretical insight. Declared Anthelme Brillat-Savarin: "The discovery of a new dish does more for the happiness of mankind than the discovery of a star."
Scientists, a cautious breed, now know that evolution rests on massive amounts of fossil data. And the unconscious today is as obvious as the law of gravity, and about as controversial. But scientists are not yet willing to embrace Brillat-Savarin's assertion with absolute certainty. At this time, they can only postulate that the discovery of a new dish makes mankind happier than a new Woody Allen movie.
The lack of conclusive evidence has haunted some of our greatest minds, leaving them baffled and in despair.
Until now. I tested Brillat-Savarin's hypothesis by heading over to Un-Bacio Ristorante, bringing along the perfect expert: my friend, the astrophysicist.
In town for the American Astronomical Society convention, he spends his professional life peering into the heavens looking for exploding stars. To add to his credentials, his knowledge of northern Italian cuisine exactly matched my grasp of supernova. So he was ideally suited to judge definitively whether the discovery of a new dish or a new star afforded greater pleasure.
Un-Bacio (it means "one kiss") greets you with casual simplicity. Mirrors adorned with red-lipsticked lips, cute photos of kissing kids and affable, apron-bedecked servers may lead you to think you're in a mom-and-pop trattoria. For a few deluded moments, I thought I might be carrying enough cash to pay for the meal without hauling out the plastic.
A glance at the menu quickly snuffed out that notion. It's typically priced northern Italian fare. But most of the food's very good, and some of it is first-rate. But you certainly wouldn't suspect it from the bread, a basket of warmed-over dinner rolls that had all the crusty, aromatic temptation of Wonder bread. As in many high-end restaurants, the appetizers here give you a chance to spend lots of money without filling up. Three crab-stuffed mushrooms provided a small taste of real crab, but the mushrooms themselves were an uninteresting vehicle that could have come out of any supermarket.
Much better was carpaccio con rugola, buttery, tender, thin slices of raw beef gilded with a perky, creamy Dijon-mustard sauce. It's mouth-wateringly delicious and not likely to be found in your supermarket's deli. But at $9.50 a plate, it may be worth a cost-benefit analysis.
A better way to edge into the meal is through the pasta and rice dishes, true tests of an Italian kitchen. Fusilli alla amatriciana brought a substantial portion of corkscrew-shaped pasta, big enough to share. It came in a hearty, fragrant sauce of diced bacon, olive oil, onions and tomato. Even better was the superb seafood risotto. Rice often substitutes for pasta in northern Italy, and this dish will give you an indication why. Made from grains grown in the Po valley, it's a labor-intensive treat that requires constant attention, as small amounts of liquid are added and absorbed.
Un-Bacio's version featured shrimp, scallops and mussels, imparting an intense aquatic tang to the slightly crunchy rice. The portion may not look too large, but risotto is filling.
My friend had never tried it before. After a few bites, he refused to say whether this new dish pleased him more than a new star. He readily admitted, though, that it made him feel better than any of the planets. Veal is a northern Italian specialty, and we sampled two venerable methods of preparation. Cotoletta alla milanese is a classic dish: veal steak, pounded thin, dipped in flour and eggs, rolled in breadcrumbs and grated Parmesan, and fried up to a crisp golden sheen in butter. It tastes even better than it sounds.
Carnivores who prefer their veal closer to a state of nature should opt for nodino di vitello capricciosa. Although it's billed as veal loin medallions, Un-Bacio served up a veal chop instead. But this incredibly tender hunk of meat should silence any quibbling. It's sauted in an appealing mushroom-and-wine sauce, but I wish the chef had found a more inventive fungus than the button mushrooms he used. Simple roasted potatoes and butter-swathed Italian green beans made pleasing accompaniments to both dishes.
Meat-averse diners should find scampi classico a decent alternative. Three huge butterflied shrimp, happily not overcooked, came in a garlic-drenched, lemon-butter white wine sauce. Our waiter seemed stupefied at our request for dessert, unaware, perhaps, of the prodigious feats of appetite that can be accomplished in the pursuit of science. My guinea pig, whose Wyoming background had exposed him to dessert treats like apple pie and Jell-O mold, was unfamiliar with our choices. But he caught on fast.
A taste of tiramisu--espresso-dipped ladyfingers mixed with mascarpone cheese and dusted with tons of cocoa--got his engines revving. The terrific wine-poached pears, topped with an incredibly fruity raspberry sorbet, launched him into another galaxy. Sipping his espresso, patting his stomach and sighing the sigh of the contented, my companion finally conceded that a meal of newly discovered northern Italian dishes made him at least as happy as the discovery of a new star. And considerably sleepier. L'Assaggio, 50 North Central, Phoenix, 252-7242. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 5 p.m. to closing.
Brillat-Savarin came up with another sharp culinary aphorism, whose truth is beyond dispute: "Tell me what you eat," he wrote, "and I will tell you what you are."
Well, I ate the food at L'Assaggio, and I'm unhappy.
It's a spiffy-looking place, done up in easy-on-the-eye green and white. Philodendron-filled latticework provided a pleasing, informal touch. A tape of Pavarotti singing "O Holy Night" and other Christmas favorites several weeks into the new year provided a touch of weirdness.
I fought off unpleasant premonitions as our breadbasket arrived. Not over the bread, which was merely nondescript, but the butter. It came in the form of individual coffee-shop-style pats, hardly the vehicle I expected in an upscale northern Italian eatery featuring $20 entrees. A little detail, true, but as it turned out, a symptomatic one.
On a quiet Saturday night, the problems began with a waiter trained at the Laurel and Hardy Serving Academy. We'd ordered appetizers, a pasta course and main dishes, anticipating a leisurely, multicourse meal. But he brought out the appetizers and pasta together, while forgetting one of the appetizers in the process.
He plopped down the jumble of dishes--remembering I got both the carpaccio and the risotto--and fled, not knowing how to set things right.
The carpaccio came festooned with slivered artichoke and thin slices of real Parmesan cheese, an appealing combination. But the meat itself lacked the buttery quality that made it irresistible at Un-Bacio. Except for the timing, though, the seafood risotto lacked nothing. Perfectly prepared, rich with mussels, octopus, squid and shrimp, the bowl released a lovely seafood-and-tomato aroma around the table. My enthusiastic companions and I played dueling spoons over it.
I expected a lot more from the tagliatelle al pesto, homemade egg noodles in a deficient pesto sauce. The lusty kick of basil, olive oil, Parmesan and pine nuts never really showed up. Instead, it tasted like just a bland bunch of noodles. As we were nibbling on the remains of the first two courses, out popped the waiter bearing salads. "Are you finished?" he asked, as he scooped up the unfinished dishes and set down a plateful of mixed greens of no particular interest. I guess he took our silent astonishment for a "yes."
With one exception, the three main dishes we sampled did nothing to enhance the reputation of northern Italy as a food lover's paradise.
The too-thick veal in the cotoletta alla milanese tasted second-rate, gristly and chewy. The surrounding breading, fried in olive oil, not butter, had only an institutional flair.
Gamberoni all' arancia promised prawns cooked in fresh-squeezed orange juice, a potentially tempting combination. But the platter contained six extremely boring, medium-size shrimp that would have looked more at home surrounded by cocktail sauce and some toothpicks.
The veal chop grilled with butter and sage, however, was outstanding, a flavorful, tender, pale-pink hunk of meat. And the crisply roasted potatoes and garlic-studded spinach that came alongside kept up their end of the bargain. Why couldn't everything have been this good?
The desserts were unappealing, and the portions were small, too. Tiramisu seemed routine, not intense enough to get excited about. And we had to fight our way through the dry ricotta cheesecake to reach the cheesy flavor. This place has ambitions, but neither the food nor the service has yet matched them. Until L'Assaggio resolves its perplexing inconsistency, it's ciao time.