Cafe Reviews

Basta Pasta?

Nick's Pasta & Pizza, 13910 North Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard, Scottsdale, 314-9445. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 9 p.m.

Today's Jeopardy! answer: another month of summer, Governor Joe Arpaio and two new pizza/pasta restaurants.

The correct question: What are three things the Valley could do without?
I don't know exactly when Phoenix will have as many Italian restaurants as Naples, but surely the day is not too far off. Is there some municipal ordinance I'm not aware of that requires all shopping-center and strip-mall landlords to have marinara sauce available on their property?

It's not the sheer number of Italian pizza/pasta joints I find disturbing. It's their general level of mediocrity. With a few exceptions (Amoroso & Sons, Giuseppe's, Chianti, Oregano's), there's nothing very distinctive about most of our basic, budget-priced Italian fare.

But I had high hopes for Nick's. It's operated by the same fellow who once ran Gianni, an upscale Scottsdale noodle parlor that featured excellent homemade pasta. Happily, he hasn't lost his touch.

However, he has downscaled his new operation quite a bit, setting up shop at what once was the edge of the desert, next to a Circle K in the burgeoning northeast Valley. Most of the usual, low-end ethnic visual cliches are here. The tables are covered with red-and-white-checked tablecloths. Piles of tomato cans and shelves of home-country goods furnish additional cues. But instead of tourist board posters of the Colosseum and Tower of Pisa, the proprietor has lined his walls with an odd collection of portraits that look like they were painted by the numbers and sold by the pound.

Except for the large pizzas and a few daily specials, most everything on the menu checks in at less than 10 bucks. Nick seems to think that if he offers fresh-baked bread, first-rate homemade pastas and sauces and topnotch pizzas and calzones at wallet-friendly prices to a growing, affluent, restaurant-scarce neighborhood, people will storm the gates. He's figured right.

On one Saturday-night visit, the waiting hordes spilled all the way out the door. (To keep them from expiring with hunger, Nick wisely worked the crowd with a freebie platter of bruschetta.) What were they lined up for?

It couldn't have been the fried calamari appetizer, the single most disappointing item here. This was the toughest, chewiest batch of squid I've run into in quite a while. The antipasto misto is a better starter option. It's a pleasing, if unremarkable, assortment of grilled eggplant, prosciutto, salami, roasted red peppers, bruschetta, fresh mozzarella and provolone.

If you're on a budget, you're probably better off skipping appetizers entirely and filling in your hunger cracks with the warm flatbread and Italian loaf. Naturally, a bowl of olive oil is provided for your dipping pleasure.

Even if you can afford it, you don't want to make too much of a dent in your appetite before the main course arrives. That's because Nick's pastas are worth being hungry for.

Fettuccine is superb, a hearty bowl of al dente ribbons seasoned with garlic and white wine, and festooned with tomato, peppers, onions and mild, savory, homemade sausage. It's impossible to eat this and not wish that you were born Italian. Gnocchi is pasta poetry: potato flour dumplings bathed in a heart-stopping Gorgonzola cheese sauce. If you like your pasta rich and heavy, this dish turns dreams into reality. Penne pesto is also triumphant, bursting with the big flavors of olive oil, garlic, pine nuts and cheese.

At $12.95, one evening's ravioli special was a bit pricier than the regular menu items. But nobody felt shortchanged by these almost weightless pouches, stuffed with shrimp and coated with a creamy tomato sauce. Try to take a bite and not involuntarily murmur, "Mmmm." Even the lasagna had merit. Instead of the usual thick wedge of gummy noodles mortared with mozzarella cheese, Nick's sends out sheets of homemade spinach pasta covered with a meaty Bolognese sauce, lightly touched up with ricotta.

The quality of Nick's pasta didn't exactly take me by surprise--Gianni had raised my expectations. But I wasn't prepared for the exceptional pizzas. They're outstanding, from the perfect, chewy, New York-style thin crust to the fine toppings. The white pizza, loaded with mozzarella, Parmesan, Gorgonzola and ricotta, is a cheese lover's delight. And the pizza salsa cruda tastes like Italy on a summer's day, sprinkled with fresh chopped tomato, onion, olives and capers.

There's usually a correlation between the quality of the pizza and the quality of the calzone, and Nick's proves the point. This effort has several things going for it: It's huge, it's tasty and it's cheap. I've had calzones costing two and even three times the $4.50 tag here that couldn't compare. The basic model is filled with ricotta and mozzarella, and for six bits each you can add nifty extras like artichoke hearts, prosciutto and eggplant.

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Howard Seftel