Cafe Reviews

White Elephant

Descending from Pinnacle Peak the other day, after a repast at Sassi, the new, resort-like restaurant fashioned to resemble an Italian villa, the initial stanza of Coleridge's Kubla Khan rang in my noggin. You know the lines, "In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/a stately pleasure dome decree . . . "

Better Kubla Khan than some smelly Ancient Mariner, I reckon. But I didn't recall those lines because I was forced to memorize them in junior high. Instead, it was the beginning of Orson Welles' masterpiece Citizen Kane, based loosely on the life of media tycoon William Randolph Hearst, which flashed before me after my first evening at Sassi (Italian for "stones," as in the rocks surrounding it). In the film, Coleridge's poem is used to describe newspaper publisher Charles Foster Kane's opulent mansion Xanadu, modeled after Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California, where Hearst and mistress Marion Davies once played host to the Hollywood elite.

Sassi is not quite a Hearst Castle. Still, dining there was vaguely reminiscent of HC's refectory, where luminaries such as Carole Lombard and Charlie Chaplin supped. I've often wondered while touring the grounds at San Simeon what it would have been like to take a meal under the watchful eye of "The Chief," as employees referred to Hearst. And after putting on the feed bag at Sassi's sprawling Scottsdale edifice, with its gurgling fountains, wrought-iron chandeliers, and immense medieval doors, I can easily envision myself traveling back in time to partake of Hearst's hospitality.

Yet, I cannot say that ambience-wise, this is an entirely satisfactory experience. Situated as it is on six acres of land, next to its country cousin, the cheesy cowboy chophouse Pinnacle Peak Patio, Sassi is clearly designed to rotate the masses in and out as a steady stream. How else will owners Kevin and Sharon Walsh make back the millions they've sunk into this white elephant? By St. Gomer's gallstones, will Sassi turn out to be some great, ravenous beast, which will never have its fill of patrons, no matter how many it swallows?

Sure, it's by no means unpleasant to pass beneath one of Sassi's stone archways, ease into one of its leather chairs and be waited upon hand and foot by Sassi's knowledgeable wait staff. All I'm saying is that this faux Italian villa is a little too impersonal, engineered better for large groups of serious fressers rather than singles or couples. There's no intimacy, and it's quite a trek to it, unless you happen to live amongst the saguaro. Moreover, once you eat some multi-course meal there with vino and cordials, the last thing you want to do is hop in the jalopy and drive for 30 minutes. Sassi should add a hotel. Then those of us who live in Phoenix can amble off to bed rather than risk a bout with Officer Friendly's breathalyzer.

When it comes to comestibles, Sassi generally earns high points, though a gratifying meal depends on what you select from the restaurant's extensive (and reasonably priced) menu. Strangely, I found almost all of the entrees I tried at Sassi to be disappointing, especially after being spoiled by Sassi's starters. These are listed under the categories antipasti, verdure, and insalata, and I hope to return to Sassi just to try more.

Of those I tasted, the standouts included the calamari, polpettini, and testa di polpo. The first item was one of the best calamari dishes I've ever had. It came in a little bowl and was tangy like a ceviche, the squid rings charred and tossed with celery, almond bits, lemon and pepperoncini oil. The crunchy almonds contrasted nicely with the slightly chewy calamari. And though I was with guests, I greedily hogged the better part of it for myself. (I am the friggin' food critic after all!) I played cormorant with the polpettini as well, a handful of small, braised meatballs in a shallow bath of white wine and bay leaf, which tasted more like Swedish meatballs to me than any Italian ones I've known.

One of my companions nearly lost a finger from my ever-masticating maw as we gobbled up the testa di polpo, octopus packed into a terrine, sliced wafer-thin and presented like polpo pancakes atop a salad of mint, basil and fennel fronds in a squid ink vinaigrette. This unusual combination of elements, from the granular squid ink and the slightly bitter salad to the nearly diaphanous octopus made me an instant fan of Head Chef Wade Moises, who honed his skills under the Food Network's Mario Batali.

Some appetizers I took exception to, however. The baccala -- salt cod mixed with roasted garlic and artichoke aioli, might have doubled for the potato salad some Scottsdale soccer-mom makes for her divorcee pals. And the funghi sott'olio (basically sauted mushroom chunks) were just ho-hum. Similarly when I had a crack at some of the bar nibblers, the bruschetta was merely one-third of the way to excellence. That is, the fegatini, a chicken liver mousse that spreads over crostini like Nutella, blew me away, while the tomatoey pomodoro and the mushy bean fagioli were so bland I didn't bother to finish them. However, serendipity smiled on me when my waitress delivered a platter of fried green beans, or fagioli fritti, to my table by accident. What an uncomplicated, delicious side, perfect if you're enjoying a touch of firewater with your food.

With the starters so top-notch, what are we to make of the generally disappointing primi and secondi, the "first" and "second" courses? Most of the pastas, whether shells stuffed with lamb, baked rigatoni, or beef and butter ravioli, could be bested by some of the better neighborhood Eye-tie spots in town. And in the case of that rigatoni, even some ready-to-microwave pasta dishes, such as those under the brand name Michael Angelo's, are superior.

The Sicilian fish stew known as cuscusu and the spalla di maiale, pork shoulder atop a bed of braised fennel, both seemed unbearably lacking in any culinary kick. The bistecca vecchio fidele, rib eye in a sweet tomato-marmalade-balsamic chutney, was an improvement, but more for the sauce than the steak. Thankfully, the desserts ended each of my trips to Sassi on high notes, the anise panna cotta and the semifreddo, half-frozen triangles of fig and almond custard rolled in crushed nuts, being my preferred postprandial treats. Whether or not W.R. Hearst would have approved is unknowable, but Citizen Lemons would like to see the entrees improved before his recommendation is granted sans reservations.

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