Cafe Reviews


Robert Browning said it long ago, but the words describe my mood. And so I head out for a much-desired Italian-food fix. The question is, what kind of cucina d'Italia shall it be?

From the sun-and-tomato-drenched south to the subtly continental north, Italy boasts unmatched variety in its cuisine. Translated to Phoenix, that means I could eat garden-variety Italian ...or look for the specialties of regional cooking.

The latter is what takes me to Maria's When in Naples, located in a stylish, north Scottsdale shopping plaza. As I climb the broad steps to the entrance, I wonder: Will I find the fish and seafood, the marinara, the cheeses I covet? Will it be casual and friendly, in the Neapolitan spirit?

I quickly find out. Just inside the door, owner Maria Ranieri is creating spinach ravioli behind a glassed-in counter. Yes, she is Neapolitan by birth, and, yes, the menu definitely reflects that. And the attractive restaurant, though rather formal, has a nice, relaxed feeling.

Soon, partner and I are seated in a charming side room that looks out on a patio dining area.

We munch warm garlic bread and enjoy the setting. More accurately, partner munches the bread, which he likes a lot. For Italian bread, I find it a little bland and soft. But I'm pleasantly absorbed by the pink-and-rose decor, with its greenery, brickwork and murals of the hillside town and Bay of Naples.

Especially interesting are a number of large plates, mounted high on the wall, with various proverbs and sayings, including the Browning quote above. I think the plates may be antiques, until I spot one that says, When in Scottsdale, do as the Napolitano do." Another sports the name Tommy Tomaso."

Yes, our server tells us, Maria took over the restaurant lock, stock and waitstaff from founder Tomaso last April. She and maitre d' Mario Vincitorio have continued things pretty much as they were. Good, I think. It works.

Meanwhile, I find just what I'm looking for on the menu.
We start with tortellini in brodo and zuppa posallipo. The former bathes meat-filled spinach pasta in hearty broth. It's flavorful, but served lukewarm. My zuppa, on the other hand, is piping hot. It consists of clams and mussels, in the shell, with coarsely ground tomatoes and herbs-more than a soup, and completely delicious.

Next come antipasto dishes. We've ordered pepperoni arrostiti, which is roasted red-pepper strips flanked by anchovy fillets, and la capese, buffalo mozzarella (a Neapolitan staple) layered with tomato slices and garnished with fresh basil leaves and Italian olives.

Both dishes are dressed in light olive oil with herbs, colorfully presented and tasty. I especially like the contrast between the mild, tender, homemade mozzarella cheese and the salty, dense Italian olives. The tomatoes are shabby by comparison (have you ever seen a good Arizona tomato?) and could have been skipped.

Our entrees arrive. Partner's chicken with pepperoncini (pollo scarpone, $12.95) is accented by a lemon-and-wine sauce. Our attentive server asks if it's too peppery, but partner tells him it's just right. The sauce has a tart bite, but a smooth aftertaste.

I sample the seafood combination, one of three specials of the evening. At $16.95, it's one of the more expensive items at Maria's, so I'm glad to find it both interesting and satisfying. It's highlighted by two substantial spinach ravioli filled with smoked salmon in a light, marinara cream sauce (available as a single entree, ravioli salmon Smirnoff). Close runners-up are two large shrimp in a pool of lemon-butter herb sauce. The third item, a strip of lean, but moist, grilled sea bass covered with chunky tomato marinara, is also a winner.

Good mostaccioli and some unexciting vegetables are sidekicks to the chicken. All dinners also come with salads, but ours are overlooked. With the soups, antipastos and entrees, we hardly miss them, and probably would forgo them if asked, but...we aren't asked.

We are asked about, and do not forgo, the dessert tray. We have just enough room left to enjoy slices of Bailey's Irish Cream cheesecake, a light concoction with ladyfinger crust, and an excellent chocolate cake with liqueur- flavored sauce. I don't usually favor chocolate cake, but I'd go out of my way for another slice of this one.

We finish up with espresso, and leave feeling as rosy as the color scheme.

Now, I think, if Maria's When in Naples is Neapolitan, then Mr. Louie's Milano ought to be Milanese, right? Wrong. But good, nevertheless. However, that's getting a little ahead of the story.

On my way to Mr. Louie's, I have visions of risotto and polenta, the rice and cornmeal dishes typical of northern Italy. I think of veal, and minestrone, and the continental fare that inspired French cooking.

I recognize the building on Camelback, an old Phoenix bungalow, as the former Gregory's Little Pasta House.

Entering, my first impression is dark," but it quickly turns to cozy" as my eyes get adjusted. The look is late Victorian, with handsome, dark-walnut woodwork and etched-and-beveled glass accents. The interior is roomier than the outside would suggest.

We are escorted through the main room, with its wood-paneled bar, into a side room whose upper walls are covered in floral fabric. Floral tablecloths are glass-covered. Other accents are few, but the fabrics provide as much color as the smallish room will bear.

Tables are a little crowded, and on a busier night I would have felt cramped. This night, though, the room is about half-filled and the effect is cheerful. In fact, everything about this pleasant restaurant is easygoing and comfortable, on the ball and laid-back at the same time.

Here I find traditional Italian bread, soft-centered with a crusty exterior, that I can wax enthusiastic over. It's served good and hot, with whipped garlic-and-basil butter.

Turning to the menu, I see veal, as well as some interesting chicken and seafood dishes. And pasta. No risotto. No polenta.

No minestrone. No Milanese, I ask the server? Well, no.
Actually, Mr. Louie (Louie Jones, longtime Phoenix restaurateur) bought the restaurant last July, replacing his previous establishment on Seventh Street. The Milano part is a holdover, along with the sign in front, from the last ownership.

But the premises have been renovated, and some of Mr. Louie's specialties have been added to the Italian menu, says our server, a 20-year veteran of Mr. Louie's service. I can live with it, I decide.

My three companions and I go for the variety, with good results. We share fried mozzarella, a nice but unmemorable presentation of breaded cheese in marinara sauce, and a nice, coarse-textured pate maison, a Mr. Louie's specialty of veal and pork with green peppercorns, served with toasted Italian bread.

These are followed by the soup of the day, stracciatella, a nutmeg-flavored meat broth with spinach and egg whisked into it. It's hot and has a bite, and I wish for more.

Both the soup and a house salad come with all meals here. The salad combines standard mixed greens with creamy Italian dressing. It's adequate. What's better is the Mr. Louie's caesar salad that one of us substitutes. The caesar dressing is a treat, tart and full-bodied.

For entrees, one of us tries a pasta, another veal, a third an unusual chicken dish and the fourth a seafood special of the evening. It's a good mix, with lots of happy sampling back and forth.

Our pasta lover chooses cannelloni with a tender, meat-and-spinach filling, served in a creamy Alfredo sauce. It's luscious, but at $9.95, the two tubes strike us as a bit skimpy, especially since no side dishes accompany them.

Chicken sorentina ($11.95), on the other hand, is ample and colorful. Its balanced-flavor blend of eggplant, thin-sliced prosciutto, cheeses and tomato marinara delights us all.

Veal scaloppine ($13.95), too, meets with hearty approval. The veal is thinly sliced and tender, smothered in fresh mushrooms and red-wine sauce.

Grilled salmon piccata ($14.95) features a nice chunk of pink fish, grilled perfectly and complemented by a smooth, lemon-butter sauce with green peppercorns.

All four entrees are hits, as are the penne pasta and crisp, steamed vegetables that accompany everything but the cannelloni.

Again, we save room for dessert: spumoni, chocolate-raspberry cake, Mr. Louie's creamy cheesecake with graham-cracker crust, and pineapple surprise (moist white cake with ambrosialike topping). All are good, if not outstanding.

That's characteristic of our experience here. I can't point to anything that's truly exciting, but almost everything is better than average, including the setting and service. It's like a gentle, thorough massage of my appetite that leaves me feeling content and glad I indulged.

Milanese or not, Mr. Louie's Milano gets a bella from me.