Cafe Reviews

Bright Bites, Big City

Milanos, 16 West Monroe (San Carlos Hotel), 258-1600. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week.

The Jeopardy! category--Geography. The answer, for $500: The lunar surface, the ocean floor and downtown Phoenix.

Ten years ago, if you buzzed in and said, "What are three locations that can't support human life?" the judges would have ruled in your favor. These days, though, you'd be $500 lighter.

It's hard to exaggerate just how dismal downtown used to be. When I got here in 1990, there was no Bank One Ballpark, America West Arena, Arizona Center, 24-theater cinema complex, Science Museum or restored Orpheum Theater. Both Heritage Square and the Mercado were dead. After 5 p.m., the area looked like it had been hit by a neutron bomb. You could lie down in the middle of the street at the intersection of Van Buren and Central and get a good night's undisturbed sleep. The few souls who did call downtown "home" looked like they wandered off the set of Escape From New York.

Those days are gone. Tens of thousands of folks are visiting downtown after hours. Even more astonishingly, people are looking to move downtown--developers are racing to put up condos and luxury apartments. The surest sign of downtown's revitalization? Global heavyweights McDonald's and Starbucks, two companies that would set up outlets on Venus at the first sign of single-celled life, finally have downtown Phoenix operations.

While there are now plenty of interesting things to do in downtown Phoenix, there still isn't much interesting to eat. For some reason, big-time restaurants have been reluctant to move in. Yes, Pizzeria Bianco came to Heritage Square, and Lombardi's, Oyster Grill and Sam's Cafe are longtime restaurant anchors at the Arizona Center. But most of the new activity centers around brewpubs.

Where else can you go if you're hungry and not looking to get sloshed? Milanos is a pretty good alternative.

This place had a long run on Camelback Road before it moved into the historic San Carlos Hotel a few months ago. That location has been jinxed for years--the last two tenants, L'Assagio and Nick's on Central, never could get jump-started. But Milanos has three advantages they didn't have: 48,000 Diamondbacks fans making 81 downtown treks a year, a revived Orpheum Theater a block away and a renovated hotel setting.

The San Carlos has a charming, old-fashioned air. And stepping into Milanos' dining room is like stepping back in time, when going to a hotel restaurant was a special event. A trio of easy-on-the-eye murals adorns one wall, which the mirrors on the opposite wall reflect. Elegant, ornate wood and etched-glass panels screen off the kitchen entrance. Blue cloth napkins and crisp, snowy-white linens line the tables. Soothing classical music is piped in. Going to a downtown event? The waitstaff will get you fed in time.

The fare is as old-fashioned as the setting. The proprietor calls it Italian-continental--pasta, chicken, veal and seafood. Milanos isn't interested in rewriting the recipe book. But for the most part, it does an effective job bringing to life the tried-and-true recipes it uses.

Don't look for much variety on the small appetizer list. Fried calamari aren't particularly memorable, but they are tender and right out of the fryer. Parmesan crab cakes, three plump, crispy croquettes, are perked up by a snout-clearing Dijon sauce. Shrimp cocktail, escargots and clams (which the kitchen was out of on each of my visits) are the only other options.

Why does Milanos go easy on the appetizer selection? Probably because there's no need to order any. Entrees here all come with soup and choice of salad. One evening's soup brought creamy broccoli; another featured barley vegetable. Both tasted as if someone spent some time stirring a simmering pot. Don't bother with the routine dinner greenery. Instead, opt for the caesar salad. Unless I was hallucinating, I believe I caught a hint of anchovy.

One main dish is so superior to every other that Milanos ought to highlight it with italics. That's the gorgeous lamb shank, an enormous piece of animal protein, so big it looks like it came off a mastodon. The meat is tinged with red wine and rosemary, crisped up slightly around the edges and fall-off-the-bone tender. Paired with roasted potatoes and mixed veggies, this hearty platter is worth coming downtown for.

The other entrees are serviceable enough, but not in the lamb shank's league. You'd think osso buco, veal shank served over fettuccine, would be just as mesmerizing, but it wasn't. For some reason, the dish didn't seem very robust.

Chicken Italiano has a certain rustic energy, done up with onions, peppers, mushrooms and mild sausage, and tossed over pasta. Cioppino sports a mound of shrimp, scallops and calamari in a light marinara sauce, heaped over linguini. A pasta combination plate, featuring tortellini, cannelloni and eggplant rotolini batted .333. While that's an outstanding average if you're a major-league ballplayer, it's not good enough in the culinary big leagues. The tortellini bathed in a hard-hitting pesto cream touched all the bases. But the cannelloni was overstuffed with dry ground beef--it had no subtlety. Neither did the lackluster eggplant-and-ricotta partnership.

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Howard Seftel