La Locanda, 10201 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 998-2822. Hours: Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 5 to 10:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 5 to 9 p.m.
Some scientists speculate that biology is the key to understanding human happiness. Chemical balance, smooth neurological function, even something in our genes, they argue, may predispose certain members of the species to heightened feelings of well-being.
I mention this only because something was causing me to break out in broad grins the nights I visited La Locanda and Gianni Cucina Italiana, two casually upscale north Scottsdale Italian restaurants. And, after some reflection, I'm pretty certain it couldn't have been that I was finally getting my physiological act together. A much more likely explanation for this powerfully good mood: the scents and tastes of dinner.
Operated by refugee Chicago Italians, La Locanda has caught on pretty quickly after only a few months. My guess is that after trying it once, people are telling their friends and coming back. It's not the setting that's captured their imaginations. The most eye-catching decorative touch on the thickly plastered, caramel-colored walls is the "Occupancy 68" fire-code sign. Piped-in Sinatra furnishes the auditory diversion. The opening bread act is the one part of the meal that could use a little tuning up. Sitting on the bread plate at each table is a package of thin breadsticks, imported from Turin. If there were something particularly distinctive about them, I might understand their presence. There's not. And ripping open plastic-wrapped nibbles is not very classy, whether they're imported breadsticks or saltine crackers. Nor will the bread that comes along a few moments later have anyone doing cartwheels. (Maybe La Locanda should think about getting supplied by the excellent Arizona Bread Company, just a half-mile away.) A worthy bowl of chopped tomato, infused with basil, accompanies the bread. But so, too, does a processed Italian cheese spread. The world's greatest cheeses come from Italy (although the French will argue this point). Surely La Locanda can do better than this.
But dinner shifts into high gear once your menu order starts arriving. The plate of mixed grilled vegetables, ideal for sharing, is a good way to edge into the meal. Slabs of eggplant, squash and red and yellow peppers come temptingly charred and brushed with balsamic vinegar. Bresaola furnishes a more subtle, but no less powerful, opening taste explosion. It's a plateful of imported, paper-thin slices of preserved beef, richly textured and intensely flavored. A topping of fresh basil and glorious Parmigiano Reggiano cheese provides additional gilding. This savory appetizer simply sings of northern Italy, and it hits all the right notes. Risotto is a more filling, but no less tasty, way to prime your appetite. La Locanda offers half a dozen intriguing versions, including one blackened with squid ink. But I couldn't resist the most expensive model, blended with white-truffle oil and Parmigiano Reggiano and laden with porcini mushrooms. The kitchen will split an order (the best option, unless you're making this your main dish) without tacking on a plate-sharing charge, an unfortunate practice that's becoming more and more common. If Valley winters chill you to the bone, the soup here will thaw you out pleasantly. The prosciutto-vegetable broth, one evening's special, delivers hearty, homemade satisfaction. Veal, the main source of northern Italian animal protein, is generally a reliable gauge of kitchen talent. La Locanda showed considerable skill preparing the two standards I sampled. Lombata al Barolo features a big, juicy veal chop moistened in an opulent Barolo wine sauce, studded with mouth-watering porcini mushrooms. To my delight, the rest of the platter was just as impressive--luscious, creamed, garlicky spinach and thin slices of grilled potatoes. If you've got $22.95 and an appetite, this is the dish to choose. Ossobuco is equally well-fashioned. Wine-braised veal shank, its tender meat barely clinging to the bone, comes bathed in a fragrant, carrot-flecked sauce. It's irresistible. Sides of spinach and a mound of saffron-tinged risotto perk up an already perky plate. But don't despair if you're not a carnivore. La Locanda is exceptionally adept at pasta. Except for the penne, it's all made fresh, and it's first-rate. In fact, the tagliatelle al ragu di carne is staggeringly scrumptious. Wide, flat noodles come in a disarmingly simple meat sauce, delicately tinged with laurel. What's more, there's plenty of it. It's impossible to eat this without involuntarily patting your belly. The gnocchi, pasta dumplings made from potato flour, may not be quite as ethereally light as those Valley-best models found at Avanti. But they're cleverly zipped up with garlicky slices of Chinese eggplant and tossed in a refreshingly light tomato sauce. I can't remember running into homemade linguini in this town. La Locanda's is worth sprinting over for. That's because it's blackened with squid ink and adorned with ten wonderful New Zealand greenlip and California black mussels, in a zesty, slightly spicy tomato sauce. The menu description, though, needs to be more accurate--it promised linguini topped with "mixed fresh fish." I didn't mind being mussel-bound, but diners taken in by visions of "frutti di mare" may not share my tolerance. At dessert time, if you're not yet sick to death of tiramisu, La Locanda's recipe is just about as good as it gets. Otherwise, sweets lack the oomph of the appetizers and main dishes. Chocolate amaretto flan, for example, may have sounded like a good idea, but it didn't translate particularly well on the plate. La Locanda sends out good vibes. Courteous but not overfriendly servers, efficient buspersons and the buzz of contented diners all add to the meal's charms. This place looks and feels like a winner.
Gianni Cucina Italiana, 8320 North Hayden, Scottsdale, 998-2507. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Dinner, Sunday, 5 to 10 p.m.
Like La Locanda, Gianni also is attracting large numbers of regulars. Even during my midweek, off-peak-hour visits, the room was crammed. In fact, the room is one of Gianni's attractions. It's voguishly spiffy, with natty, life-size pictures of diners sketched in black and white on the walls. A large table in the room's center also catches your eye; it's attractively festooned with loose pasta, bottles of wine and containers of herbs. Tucked away in a corner is a smaller table displaying homemade breads and hunks of Pecorino Romano cheese. To sharp-eyed gourmands, it's the most appealing sight of all.
That's because, moments after you're seated, servers slice off generous slabs of cheese, fill a basket with fresh-out-of-the-oven Italian bread and focaccia and bring them to the table. Then they pour some olive oil on a plate, for dunking pleasure. The bread and cheese are a smart touch, in both senses of the word, and they make an immediate, wonderful impression. Not so the skimpy polenta pomodoro appetizer, a tasty but insubstantial nibble. The best way to get full benefit from the bread and cheese is to order the antipasto platter. The promised bresaola didn't show up on it (the kitchen substituted some less exciting, and less expensive, capacolla), but the rest of the plate left no room for complaint. After merrily scooping up prosciutto, grilled eggplant, fresh mozzarella, tomato, peppers and bruschetta between bites of bread and cheese, I was almost ready to call it a night. The soups almost made me wish I had. The two I sampled were definitely the meal's low point. Thin, watery minestrone had only a few desultory vegetables floating about. And the stracciatella, a chicken broth with eggs and spinach, had little flavor. Maybe the chef doesn't have his heart in them. But there's no doubt that he goes all out when it comes to pasta. Most of the pasta is freshly made, and it's superb. Pappardelle con porcini, in fact, goes beyond superb; it's sublime. The broad noodles come in a voluptuous cream sauce, thick with earthy-tasting porcini mushrooms. This dish is a treat, one of the tastiest ways I know of to part with $11.95. Tagliatelle Bolognese may not be quite as richly elegant, but it's impressive in a simple, straightforward way. The key? A hearty, on-target tomato sauce, deftly seasoned and embellished with ground meat. Gnocchi, too, benefit from an intense tomato sauce. Somebody in this kitchen knows how to make pasta sauces. Gianni's risotto is just as skillfully prepared. The risotto con salciccia takes full advantage of some fragrantly scented sausage, combining heady aroma with lip-smacking flavor. While the menu offers 18 wide-ranging pasta dishes, it confines itself to seven dull-sounding meat platters (grilled breast of chicken, veal with cream and pepper) and a few nightly specials. One of them, veal Marsala, more or less convinced me to stick to the pasta. I could deal with the somewhat-heavy-handed wine sauce. But one of the three veal medallions was tough and chewy enough for me to throw down my knife in despair. If the Valley ever holds a tiramisu taste-off, Gianni's version is a lock to make the finals. Loaded with cocoa and mascarpone, it breathes new life into this clich‚ sweet. The operators also have the good sense to bring in Berto's gelato from La Fontanella; it's a heavenly dose of chocolate hazelnut ice cream studded with high-proof pieces of baba au rhum. Yum. Although only marginally more expensive than a Basic Noodle Joint, Gianni delivers extremely high dining value along with a very comfortable dining experience. Don't be put off by the crowded parking lot jammed with overpriced luxury-model cars. Scottsdalians obviously know a good eating deal when they see one.