Cafe Reviews

Fiamma Fantabulous

Whenever I wax homesick for La-la Land, I need only stop by Scottsdale's James Hotel for a fix of that über-modern, über-sophisticated vibe that the City of Angels has in great store. Pass through the James' lobby towards its J-bar, and you could just as well be at The Standard or the Mondrian, both on Sunset Boulevard, save that the James is newer and doesn't seem nearly as cramped. Also, I might be imagining things, but I could swear the staff lacks that superciliousness that the doormen and the bartenders at those other inns wear on their sleeves with pride.

Scottsdale may not be known as the capital of congeniality, but everything's relative, and Arizona's most uppity city is a lot friendlier than much of L.A. The James and its ultra-hip eatery Fiamma Trattoria seem to fit in this groove as well. The service overall is a model of studious perfection. One never has to ask for water or rescue a napkin after it slides to the floor. The black-clad wait staff is as attentive as a prince's valet. Every need and desire is accounted for. By Jove, if they could digest the food for you, I'm sure they would!

Fiamma Trattoria is downstairs and to the right of the James' lobby and J-bar. Rust-hued partitions separate the lower bar area with its concave couches from the dining room with its candlelit tables, silvery gray roof and black flooring. Against the wall are booths of beige plastic made to look like paper, and across from these is a wide patio overlooking a swath of greenery. The high-end grub shack is most impressive at night, when the lights are dimmed and samba music plays on the stereo. A more romantic chow house in Old Town would be difficult to imagine.

Yet FT's menu doesn't always live up to the service and atmosphere provided. Par example, the pasta in this place was nearly as disappointing as this season's finale of The Sopranos. I started with such high hopes. After all, the James's Web site is full of self-praise for its handmade pastas, as well as plaudits for Executive Chef Michael White's devotion to the art of Italian cuisine. Thing is, you don't need a degree from a culinary academy to make pasta. And handmaking pasta only has some logic for a restaurant if the result is stellar.

Sadly, this is not the case with Fiamma Trattoria's pasta, which I found less appetizing than a primo brand boiled straight from the box. On my first visit, I tried the day's special, a duck lasagna, and I loved the shredded fowl layered between the squares, moist and savory as it was. But the pasta itself was rather blah and lacked that wholesome deliciousness great pasta should have. I mean, for $20 a plate, I expect you to knock me on my keister, boyo, not just blow smoke rings in my direction.

The same was true of the clam linguine and the rigatoni bolognese. In each case, everything about these entrées was delectable, save for the pasta. The rigatoni was particularly depressing. If I'd been served these salty, chewy tubes at an Olive Garden (assuming I was forced to eat there at the point of a pistol), the mediocrity would be expected. But at Fiamma Trattoria? Here, it's practically a crime at $17 a serving.

Fortunately, other than a Caesar salad with an almost tasteless dressing, all of the non-pasta dishes lived up to their price range. Fiamma Trattoria's osso buco was exquisite, served on a cushion of mashed potatoes, the little marrow fork sticking straight up out of the bone, in case you forget that the marrow is the real treat. I know osso buco is a clichd item these days, but that's because so many places do it and do it poorly. At FT, the marrow is magnìfico, and the veal so soft that mastication is minimal. If you have to choose one spot to secure osso buco in Scottsdale, FT should be the one.

The swordfish alla puttanesca was another bull's eye in my book. You get a nice piece of flavorful, wood-fired swordfish, bathed in a puttanesca sauce of tomatoes, olives and capers. Ordinarily, puttanesca comes with pasta, but I'm glad that wasn't the case here, because this zesty mlange would have been wasted on FT's semolina sticks. You may be familiar with one of the legends ascribed to puttanesca, derived from the Italian word for "whore." Some sources say the sauce got its name because the gals in the brothels liked to whip this one up between servicing johns. Others assert that the aroma of the sauce would lure customers to the working girls. Or maybe it's just because puttanesca is a spicy dish. Whatever the story, it makes for an amusing digression during din-din chit-chat.

Regarding appetizers, the buffalo mozzarella with heirloom tomatoes was quite gratifying, and the calamari was tasty, even if the squid rings themselves seemed a bit anorexic. But the best appetizer at FT was not an appetizer at all, but an entrée of seared scallops on a bed of creamy risotto with bacon, which I shared one evening with my dining companions. It was another of the nightly specials, but I wish the powers that be would add it to their starters list. It'd be perfect there.

FT's desserts, though, could turn an ascetic monk into an insatiable cormorant. Of these, the crochette were a fantasy come true: a tall bowl of ameretti beignets (think donut holes), sprinkled with powdered sugar, and accompanied by a tiny, three-slotted condiment tray, with chocolate, raspberry, and caramel dipping sauces. These crochette made an indelible impression on me, and I'd go back just to have them again. All praise is due FT's pastry chef Elizabeth Katz, for whom I'd now like to declare my undying love, after the manner of Pepé Le Pew in those Looney Tunes cartoons. After all, didn't Pepé have a thing for "cats" painted to look like female skunks?

Even if Ms. Katz fails to return my affection, Fiamma Trattoria will remain on the list of places I'll take folks whenever I want to impress them. Assuming, of course, they are willing to steer clear of the pasta.

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