Basta Pasta?

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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.

Sandwiches, however, are not in the same class as the pasta, pizza and calzone. The good news about the eggplant parmigiana hero is that the main attraction is grilled just right and not buried by gloppy cheese or tomato sauce. The bad news is there's way too little of it--this sandwich is 90 percent bread. The cold Italian combo, meanwhile--salami, prosciutto, provolone--is merely routine.

Desserts, fortunately, aren't. Tiramisu is well-crafted; cannoli are the real deal; and the white-chocolate tartufo drizzled with strawberry sauce will send you home with a smile.

Nick's has other things going for it beyond cheap, tasty eats. The consumer-friendly BYOB policy lets you drink without running up a bar tab. And if you prefer soft drinks, Nick's pours endless refills at no additional cost.

If you're headed for Nick's this weekend, come early and come hungry. You won't leave disappointed.

Sammy's California Woodfired Pizza, Paradise Village Gateway, 10625 North Tatum, Phoenix, 607-1212. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.

The first Sammy's opened to great notices in La Jolla back in 1989. Since then, others have spread throughout San Diego County, to Las Vegas, and even Japan.

If Sammy's had opened here in 1989, when Phoenix was a culinary desert, the eating-out public probably would have taken to the streets in celebration. But this is 1997. These days, the local Italian-restaurant scene is alive, dynamic and very competitive. California Pizza Kitchen, whose concept Sammy's clones, has been in the Valley for five years. It seems like every restaurant in town already makes pizzas topped with duck sausage, Thai chicken and goat cheese.

Sammy's can't wow us with novelty. The only other way it can get our attention is through quality. Unfortunately, that turns out to be the road not taken.

The look certainly hasn't been neglected. If plants are really the best air purifiers, Sammy's should be as clean and pure as an Alpine village. There's greenery everywhere. The terra cotta-and-turquoise color scheme gives the place a California feel. Archways, tile and hanging copper pots make us forget we're in a shopping-center storefront, looking out on a parking lot.

Show me a pizza/pasta place where the salads are better than the pizza and pasta, and I'll show you a place that's going to struggle to find repeat customers.

Sammy's wood-fired pizzas aren't bad. The problem is, they're not particularly good. If it's pizza you want, you can find better alternatives all over town.

One problem, and it's a big one, is the crust. It's a little too light, and not quite chewy and crisp enough for my taste. Moreover, some of the topping combinations not only skirt the line between inventive and weird, they take a running leap over it. The pizza coated infelicitously with spicy, Jamaica-jerked chicken, slivered carrots and sun-dried tomatoes takes more time getting used to than I was willing to put in. The Thai shrimp model offers unmistakable Thai flavors--cilantro, peanuts, lime, mint. But they'd be better off invigorating rice or noodles. The artichoke pizza, on the other hand, is simply dull.

Only the lamb-sausage pizza sustained our interest, aided by a zesty complement of onions, peppers and wild mushrooms.

Pastas and calzone are perfectly serviceable, and perfectly forgettable. The linguini marinara demonstrates the virtues of simplicity, moistened by a light tomato sauce and touched up with a bit of fresh basil and shaved Romano. However, I can't quite figure out how the kitchen turned fettuccine tossed with chicken sausage and wild mushrooms into a bland noodle dish. The spinach calzone, meanwhile, benefits from a blend of hearty ingredients: grilled eggplant, mushrooms, olives and goat cheese. But the nine-dollar tag put a damper on my enthusiasm.

I'm very fond of the salads. Chinese chicken salad is embellished with cilantro, sesame seeds and mandarin orange, and coated with a sweet, vaguely Asian-style dressing. The hearts of romaine salad delivers a good-looking pile of greenery, pepped up with scallions, basil, olives and goat cheese. And the chopped salad is also a winner, a heaping hash of grilled chicken, lettuce, tomato, mozzarella, olives and basil. If Sammy's pizza and pasta were topnotch, the salads would be a bonus. But they can't carry this place on their own.

Desserts can't, either. Don't look for subtlety. The Messy Sundae lives up to its name: a big glass of ice cream heaped with chocolate sauce, walnuts and whipped cream, set on top of a plate with more sauce and nuts. The caramel-apple sundae is similar, ice cream larded with apple crisp, caramel sauce and granola.

What makes Sammy's run? It's not the food. It barely gets up enough steam to reach jogging speed.

Nick's Pasta & Pizza:
Fettuccine with sausage
Pizza salsa cruda (medium)
White-chocolate tartufo

Sammy's California Woodfired Pizza:
Chopped salad (small)
Linguini marinara
Lamb-sausage pizza

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