Cafe Reviews

Awesome Buco

Angelo Ianuzzi has opened another restaurant in the Valley and this provokes a deep urge to exhume the past. Isn't this the guy who so brazenly fingered the tastes of the locals before lighting out for the ever-so-cultured California coast? He's back?!?!

Italians have a word for this. They call it chutzpah. (They got the term from some friends.)

So anyway, here's the tenth in a series of Ianuzzi Ristorante(s). This time the location is the El Pedregal plaza up by The Boulders in ultra-north Scottsdale. After dining here, my advice is to forget the past, for this Ianuzzi serves up one damn righteous ristorante experience. To start with, El Pedregal itself makes a fabulous first impression. There are any number of distinctly arresting features: the bold use of paint on sandstone; the impression of a huge, abstract tepee created by the suspension of large, colored canvas from a tri-pole in the courtyard; the always engaging boulders in the background; the permanent proscenium stage and the perfect acoustics. But there's a total here that's far more than the sum of the dynamically designed common areas, retail stores and art galleries. So assiduously wrought, El Pedregal actually seems unprocessed as well as innovative, appropriate and even quite charmed, especially in the twilight glow of an approaching supper hour.

In its ample second-story quarters, Ianuzzi's intelligently employs a modest clarity of design that allows the special sense of place to permeate and linger. The restaurant's key feature is, in fact, a room-length window opening onto a panoramic landscape of the desert to the southwest and, at night, to the lights of Scottsdale and Phoenix beyond. The rest is charcoal-gray walls, black furniture accents, white linen, soft background music and low-key candlelight with just one small electric touch, the restaurant's name in silver neon insouciantly reflecting off the window from behind the back bar.

This dramatic economy of gesture translates well as the meal begins. Bread service for two, as an example, consists of just two perfect rolls, one sourdough and one pumpernickel, cozily paired in a small mesh basket. Likewise, as the waiter presents menus and offers to recite specials, we are pleased to learn that there are only two of the latter, so we do not have to mold our moods to memorization and recall.

The menu itself is imaginatively contemporary without crossing the line into flaky trendiness. For the most part the Ianuzzi kitchen simply employs a particularly broad palette of ingredients and presentation techniques without totally forsaking the fans of pasta, tomato sauce and melted cheese. Prices on the completely a la carte menu are generally high but, as has been the case with previous Ianuzzi incarnations, they do not seem meretricious.

My guest begins dinner with an order of Escargot Ravioli in Sage Butter. The dish is striking for its almost-primal rustic quality, looking a little like a pasta forest after a butter rain. There's an appropriately strong and attractive earthy/nutty characteristic to the flavor of the escargot combined with sage, although the ravioli casing itself is a bit pasty and the butter sauce is almost disturbingly rich.

My own appetizer of Italian Sausage with Roasted Peppers is more formally plated. A whole grilled sausage is served sliced on a soft lettuce leaf that is symetrically flanked by two large, roasted red peppers. The plate is pretty and the sweetness of the peppers is perfectly bloomed by roasting, but the tender sausage is a trifle bland (more fennel! more hot pepper! more salt!).

The best flavor balance of the evening is achieved in an entree dish called Fettucine Meraviglioze con Vodka. Lots of restaurants have a salmon with pasta in cream sauce dish, but the Ianuzzi effort is truly wonderful. Here the flaked salmon, the perfectly restrained addition of cream, the tender fettucine and especially the background flavors of vodka, pepper and caviar all take a savory turn in this lovely composition.

Our most ambitious order is a dish called Fegatini Napolitano con Polenta. The centerpiece of this presentation is a sauteed and brown-sauced mixture of chicken livers, artichokes, mushrooms, pine nuts and raisins. The taste combination works well, especially the astringent contrasts provided by the artichokes and raisins, although the chicken livers are more than a little on the pink side.

Garnishes for the fegatini include some excellently flavored shredded red cabbage sauteed in sesame oil and a thoroughly boring, albeit tender, puck of polenta. It's while I'm sampling the latter that I notice the great-looking orders of Veal Parmigiana and Osso Buco being delivered to the next table. I start wondering whether I've not overdone the fashionable in my dinner selections. I'm definitely going to have to get back to this place and try some familiar fare (that's also easy to pronounce).

I am going to share some of the blame for my esoteric edibles with my waiter, who has a somewhat ingratiating/somewhat irritating approach to recommendations. He is eminently knowledgeable about every dish on the menu, but he also loves everything without reservation. Frankly, the food's not so universally great that it can't stand a little more discreet analysis on the part of the waitstaff.

I might also suggest that management pay a little more attention to the ministrations of the busing staff. Perhaps it is restaurant policy never to offer to replenish the breadbasket, but if that is so, I am appalled. I am also chagrined when, at the end of a lovely evening, a busboy plops down some pricey leftovers in a Styrofoam burger container that might even insult the sensibilities of Ronald McDonald.

Otherwise, the evening ends with good coffee and a novel dessert of pureed fruitcake and vanilla ice cream called Torta Bruta ("ugly cake"). In all, if Angelo can refrain from any more "bruta" remarks about his customers, this Ianuzzi Ristorante may well be celebrated as his most popular effort yet. For the sake of our prosaic little dining community, I hope that's the way it goes down.

If its early performance is an honest indication of what's up for the long haul, Tuscany is likely to become a tratto-real popular place around these parts. The latest effort of another pre-eminent Phoenix pasta purveyor, Tomaso Maggiore, this new restaurant appears to be doing a commendable job of making all the "pizzas" fit. It's pretty, polished, particular without being pretentious, and permeated with the sort of savvy entrepreneurial signature that's a privilege to behold.

Since the high-profile Camelback Esplanade project already has a fine French hotel and an urban Texan saloon, it's no longer in any way surprising that its newest resident might be a traditional Tuscan trattoria. What is remarkable, however, is the success of the illusion in this case. Both in design motif and menu, this place comes across like the real cosa.

"I'm very happy here," offers our Italian-born waiter. "This is not an American-Italian restaurant. This is Italian-Italian."

Atmospherically and gastronomically, the creative concept is centered around an open kitchen with an oak-burning brick oven. This kitchen is complemented by a hand-painted, brick-accented mural of Florence and a host of decor pieces and tabletop touches that capture the refined rustic simplicity of the Tuscan region. The free-standing Esplanade location, including a great view of the Ritz Carlton's driveway, makes this place seem like a "fancy" restaurant, but "upscale-casual" is closer to the truth. However you wish to describe the ambiance, however, there's no denying that Tuscany is primarily a dining delight. The menu, which gives equal play to appetizers, salads, pasta, pizza and "entrees", is deceptively short. The illusion of length comes from the innovative offerings, particularly as they feature such authentic regional recipes and ingredients as roasted rabbit, kidney beans, polenta, mushrooms, creamy risotto, chianti, balsamic vinegar and heavy usage of olive oil and fresh herbs.

There are a number of truly pleasing pasta dishes on the Tuscany menu: broad pappardelle noodles covered with a ragout-like mixture of rabbit and wild mushrooms; spaghettini with fresh tomatoes, basil and caramelized garlic. Still, it is the bread-baking brick oven that is appropriately allowed to star. All customers are treated to some first-rate foccacia, and the appetizer menu features a regional specialty called fettuta: grilled bread brushed with garlic and olive oil and topped with basil and tomatoes. Where Tuscany definitely dazzles, however, is with its luscious appetizer-size pizzas.

Neither overbearing gut busters nor artsy-fartsy designer creations, the Tuscany pizzas are symphonies of lightness, balance and exceptional taste. Topped with such combinations as veal sausage and shitake mushrooms, or shrimp, sun-dried tomatoes and leeks, these pizzas are particularly pleasing in that every ingredient listed is one that can actually be tasted. In fact, this last characteristic is the true strength of the entire Tuscany menu.

In closing, I confess that I'm not entirely taken with Tuscany's Texan neighbor, and the posh Parisian joint is almost staggeringly pricey. Tuscany may not be any more appropriate to the neighborhood, but if they keep up this level of effort I know where you can send my mail.

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Steven Weiss