For a starter that appears on practically every restaurant menu, from Olive Garden to Postino, bruschetta (broo-SKETTA) is a remarkably appealing -- and mispronounced -- dish. The concept is simple: toast a slice of crusty bread and top it with pretty much whatever sounds fresh or appealing. Yes, die-hard Italian style bruschetta fans, crostini does not have to be topped with tomatoes or tapenade to call it bruschetta.
We compared the bruschetta at two upscale casual Italian restaurants in hopes of finding one good enough to be a meal in itself.
In One Corner: NoRTH
15024 N. Scottsdale Rd. in Scottsdale
NoRTH is exactly what we'd expect from a Sam Fox establishment that insists on capitalizing only part of its name. Sleek and modern, but not too trendy. Dark wood floors. Light green chairs with clean lines. Faux brick walls. Nice, but nondescript in that "upscale casual Scottsdale" kind of way.
For such a swank place, we were surprised at how squashed together the tables were. Better make nice with your neighbors now, because you might be banging elbows later in the meal. Good thing on our weekday afternoon visit, we were practically the only guests in the place.
NoRTH's Italian-inspired menu features several traditional appetizers offered at happy hour, including their classic bruschetta. Our order arrived beautifully plated -- four good-sized toasts topped with perfectly melted crescenza cheese, prosciutto di Parma and crisp green asparagus. The prosciutto was curled on top into a little flower shape. Aww.... the dish was so pretty we didn't want to eat it.
We changed our minds once we dug in, though. The toasted french bread was crisp and buttery; good enough to eat on its own. Add to that the deliciously salty-sweet crescenza. The cheese was perfectly melted, just enough to ooze slightly down the bread. No waxy texture or oiliness, two problems which plague subpar melted cheeses. The cheese was mild, but flavorful enough to stand up to the other ingredients.
"I'm not a huge asparagus fan, because of the stringy texture," said my dining companion. "But this is really good. Maybe I've been swayed over to the asparagus side."
The asparagus was indeed fresh and crispy, mitigating the natural stringiness of the vegetable. Perhaps if my friend had tried asparagus like this earlier, instead of the soggy overcooked version offered in most suburban homes, he would've liked it from the start. The prosciutto floret was a great crowning touch, grounding the entire dish with rich, salty flavor. No complaints here, other than that we wanted to order a second batch -- its just too tempting during half-price happy hour.
In the Other Corner: La Bocca Urban Pizzeria + Wine Bar
699 S. Mill Ave. in Tempe
La Bocca occupies some of Mill Avenue's prime real estate; a glass- and brick-walled corner spot in the Bank of America building. The restaurant, which is only open for dinner, is dark enough you can barely see the menus or the food. The one well-lit wall behind the corner bar sports a lovely mural of an Italian renaissance portrait.
La Bocca specializes in pizza, with a few sandwiches, salads and daily specials to round out their menu. Their bruschetta is "choose 4" out of a list of 8 types; always a winner in our books. There's something about being presented with a list to choose from that makes us feel better about life. Or, at least, more in control of our dinner.
We opted for the roasted garlic, prosciutto with fig and mascarpone, roasted artichoke with spinach and red pepper, and the pulled pork with roasted red pepper and pesto. Our four "planks" arrived on an adorable wooden plank. LOL.
The prosciutto and fig was a winner. It's almost dessert-like in its sweetness, owing to the creamy mascarpone and sweet dried fig slices. Sweet and creamy is balanced by the saltiness of the prosciutto, which was light in texture and buttery enough to nearly melt in our mouths. Crisp, lightly toasted french bread provides the perfect stage for the ingredients.
"Ooooh. Why didn't we get four of these?" quipped my dining companion. "I could eat this every day. I think I might pick up some ingredients at the market this week so I can!"
Diced artichokes with spinach had a nice green, earthy flavor -- though it could've stood some semi-soft cheese for balance and contrast. Pulled pork was tasty, though a bit dry. Roastic garlic was the least appetizing. The garlic was over-roasted to the point of being mushy and losing a lot of its zesty flavor. Crisp arugula contrasted the garlic's texture, but was so bitter that it overwhelmed the dish.
Our dining companion was eager to voice his opinion. "This is what I imagine jellyfish would taste like, if you roasted it and stuck it on bread with bitter greens." Ugh. Enough said.
The Winner: North (although given different bruschetta selections, La Bocca could've easily edged ahead.)