Cafe Reviews

Insalata Da-Vida

Arrivederci, 7101 East Thunderbird, Scottsdale, 922-8225. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.

This is the time of year to reflect and count our blessings. What am I thankful for? I'm thankful my daughter's not dating O.J.; I'm thankful I haven't lent Fife Symington money; I'm thankful I don't have Suns season tickets.

I'm especially thankful for a couple of new-to-town blessings we couldn't count this time last year. Two fine Italian restaurants have recently opened their doors, oases in a desert where most of their competitors aim no higher than red-checked-oilcloth mediocrity.

In particular, the arrival of Arrivederci should be as welcome to Italian-food fans as the arrival of Squanto was to the Pilgrims. Why? To put it simply: Arrivederci dishes out some of the best Italian fare you'll find in the Valley.

You wouldn't think so judging from the location. Arrivederci does business in a jinxed shopping-center storefront on the southwest corner of Scottsdale Road and Thunderbird. Over the past few years, this location has been a burial grounds, a restaurant La Brea Tar Pits swallowing up one enterprise after another without a trace. But the danger should pass once word of Arrivederci's kitchen prowess gets out.

It's a casual, cozy place, with a touch of class. (There's another branch in a fancy section of San Diego.) Wine racks divide the small bar area from the dining room. Tables are set with linen, candles and a silk flower arrangement. Long white curtains shield views of the parking lot and street. Instead, diners gaze on evocative, black-and-white photos of 1940s Italy that look like stills from neorealist films of the era. The piped-in music, however, sounds a jarring note, a head-scratching mix of schlock pop like "Copacabana" and "Fernando" alternating with "Come Back to Sorrento" and selections from Turandot.

But you certainly won't be scratching your head over the food. Arrivederci hits on all cylinders, from breadbasket to after-dinner drink, and all points in between. It's almost impossible to take a bite of anything and not be tempted to start purring.

The formula? It's no secret: First-class ingredients combined with first-class preparation. You get a hint of it immediately, when you dip the wonderful homemade Italian bread into the powerful pesto dipping sauce.

The appetizers take up in earnest the assault on your taste buds. The caprese is hands-down the best I've had in this time zone, a monument to simplicity, freshness and flavor. It features homemade mozzarella rolled with fragrant roasted peppers atop a robust slice of tomato, all garnished with greens and fresh basil.

Melanzana Sorrentina is equally luscious, thin slices of grilled eggplant baked under a bubbling canopy of mozzarella cheese, moistened with a light, almost summery tomato sauce.

Looking for something a little more offbeat? Order insalata d'anatra, strips of tender, smoked breast of duck, tossed with pine nuts, raisins and bacon, resting on a bed of warm spinach. I'm getting hungry again just writing about it. In comparison, the grilled mushrooms, stuffed with seasoned breadcrumbs, seem somewhat tame.

Main dishes will set your heart racing as if you'd just completed the New Times Phoenix 10K. The menu lists the noodle platters under the heading "Pasta Divina," and that description is no exaggeration. Mezzelune all'Aragosta, homemade ravioli in the shape of a half-moon, are pure heavenly delight. The pouches are filled with lobster, then coated with a saffron cream sauce so rich and intense it left me woozy. Wow.

Fettuccine also gets star treatment. The fettuccine Bel Paese brings pasta tossed with a heady blend of wild mushrooms, in a lip-smacking brandy cream sauce. Paglia e Fieno al Pesto is just as hard-hitting, fettuccine tossed with green beans and pine nuts in a garlicky pesto sauce. Even the lasagna seems special, spruced up with seasoned meat and a smooth bechamel sauce.

I worried that the kitchen might let down with the protein-based entrees: seafood, chicken, veal. Not a chance. This kitchen refuses to slack off.

I offer in evidence pollo Soronno, chicken breast sauteed with amaretto and perked up with almonds. If there's a more vigorously flavored poultry dish in this town, it hasn't come to my attention. The veal alla Milanese, meanwhile, rivals the Valley's best models. It's the classic preparation, three pounded medallions dipped in egg and rolled with breadcrumbs, fried to a golden, buttery sheen and colorfully sprinkled with diced tomatoes. And shrimp fans can savor six meaty, butterflied crustaceans in the gamberi Nostrani, enlivened with artichokes, mushrooms and tomatoes in a hearty white-wine sauce.

The only less-than-stellar entree? That would be the seafood risotto, an evening special that didn't quite measure up in intensity or creamy richness.