Cafe Reviews

Capisce de Resistance

Leccabaffi Ristorante, 9719 North Hayden, Scottsdale, 609-0429. Hours: Lunch, Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, Tuesday through Sunday, 5 to 11 p.m.

My fellow citizens: Today, I announce my candidacy for governor. If my write-in campaign is successful, the people of this great state can count on the following reforms:

1. A new month--Seftelber--will be interposed between November and December. This will have the dual effect of keeping Christmas from rushing upon us so soon after Thanksgiving, as well as prolonging autumn for 30 days.

2. On the last Sunday in March, while the rest of the country is setting its clocks one hour ahead, Arizonans will set their clocks back 40 years. That way, while everyone else is dealing with an uncertain future, we'll be able to enjoy "the good old days."

3. Per the Second Amendment: A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear tactical nuclear weapons shall not be infringed.

4. I will get rid of the state income tax. To make up for the budget shortfall, rights to rename "Arizona" will be auctioned off to the highest bidder. "Colangelostan" has a nice ring to it, don't you think? So does "Sumitomoland."

5. It's time to take back the neighborhoods. The Seftel administration doesn't believe in coddling criminals. Our policy toward lawbreakers--be they drug pushers, flim-flam developers or jaywalkers--can be summed up in two words: lethal injection.

6. Nothing is more important than education. I pledge to raise state standards by deporting to New Mexico any student who can't maintain a C average.

7. The number of Italian restaurants has gotten way out of hand. Therefore, no one shall serve veal, pasta or tiramisu without the governor's approval.

If I am elected, my first official act will be to certify Leccabaffi. Just a few months old, this Scottsdale operation has hit the ground running, dishing out big-time fare--and at big-time prices.

It's not surprising that Leccabaffi has gotten off to a fast start. The chef/proprietor is hardly a novice--he used to run La Bruschetta until he shut it down about five years ago to go off to San Francisco.

It's clear that Leccabaffi's setting has received as much attention as the food. The last two places at this address--a burger shop and Caribbean fast-food spot--didn't have much design pizzazz. But now the space has been transformed. Just inside the entrance stands a table heaped with a tempting array of grilled, marinated and sauteed vegetables. A few steps past, you'll notice a stack of wood, destined for the wood-burning oven. An Italian market-scene mural livens up one wall, while the open kitchen and cheery staff inject casual notes. And once you're seated, perfect lighting, hefty silverware, proper wine glasses and eye-catching, cobalt-blue bread plates make an extremely favorable table impression.

So does almost everything on the menu. Leccabaffi, I'm told, means "lick the mustache." I see what the chef means--it's what you'll want to do after you've scraped these plates clean.

Meals begin with wonderful focaccia and chewy, crusty slices of Italian bread. If you're watching your budget, you can always fill up on bread and skip the $8 to $10 appetizers. But while that tactic may make financial sense, it doesn't make gastronomic sense.

Plump, house-cured anchovies teamed with celery and Parmesan cheese are a vigorous way to edge into dinner. So is prosciutto accompanied by thin slices of pear and pecorino. And I haven't run into any other local Italian restaurant offering smoked scamorza, a cousin of mozzarella. The kitchen here presents it beautifully, sending out a grilled disk embellished with radicchio, roasted onions and portabella mushroom.

The luscious veggie platter will also get you stoked. The eggplant, zucchini, peppers, tomato, asparagus and cauliflower are a nice change of pace from the usual salami-and-cheese antipasto. But for $9.50, there should have been more of them. However, there was no shortage of seafood in one appetizer special, a well-stocked bowl swimming with clams, mussels and cockles in a memorable garlic broth that we soaked up with bread.

I guess Leccabaffi feels compelled to serve pizza, pasta and risotto in order to make sure it covers all the Italian bases. And make no mistake, the chef knows how to handle them. But the real glories here are the lusty meat, fish and poultry entrees. They're pricey, but it's unlikely you'll feel shortchanged.

Costoletta alla Valdostana is a triumph, a bone-in veal chop with a pocket of fontina cheese. It's lightly breaded, sauteed and gilded with a pinch of truffles and a tablespoon of rich brown sauce. This dish just about explodes with flavor. Another carnivore's delight, two filet mignon medallions drizzled with a creamy Gorgonzola sauce, packs the same sort of powerful punch.

The daily seafood special can be just as riveting. One evening we were lucky enough to run into a mixed seafood plate, featuring shrimp, swordfish, lobster and sea bass, simply brushed with olive oil, grilled and paired with cold, marinated green beans. If I'd closed my eyes, I might have believed I was sitting on the Italian coast.

Another frequent special is wine-soaked quail, two teeny birds braised in a sturdy Barolo, and served over Tuscan toast. Try to find this at your neighborhood Italian restaurant.

(My only quibble with the specials: They're listed on a blackboard, without prices. Customers either have to ask the cost, or pray Leccabaffi won't stick it to them. "Don't ask, don't tell" may work in the military, but it's no way to run a restaurant.)

If folks in your group insist on something other than a plate of animal protein, steer them to the marvelous gnocchetti, prepared Roman style. They aren't the light potato-flour gnocchi dumplings we're used to. These are fashioned out of semolina and molded into three fat disks, then baked, sauteed and coated with a robust blend of fontina and kefalograviera cheeses. This dish is unbelievably rich, and unbelievably satisfying. (As far as I'm aware, only one other Valley restaurant, Cafe Patou, makes gnocchi alla Romana.)

Fettuccine tossed with lobster and fresh tomato is deftly done, if not quite as head-turning as some of the other fare. The same holds true for the risotto. Though goosed up with foie gras and truffles, it seemed not quite creamy enough, and a little too delicate and understated. And although the pizza decorated with mozzarella, roasted peppers, tomato and oregano is first-rate, I simply can't imagine why, given the alternatives, anyone would come here and order pizza.

I can imagine why people would order dessert. The old standards, creme brulee and tiramisu, are skillfully done. So is the ice cream-like semifreddo and puff pastry filled with chocolate cream. But if you really want a treat, kick back with a glass of amber-colored vin santo, Tuscany's classic dessert "holy wine," served with three homemade biscotti. Mama mia, it's good.

Years ago, violinist Fritz Kreisler and pianist Arthur Rubinstein went to hear the young prodigy Jascha Heifitz perform. After the first dazzling piece, a perspiring Kreisler turned to Rubinstein and asked, "Isn't it hot in here?" Replied the smiling, cool-as-a-cucumber Rubinstein: "Only for violinists."

No one could blame this town's Italian-restaurant owners for starting to sweat: Leccabaffi is applying some serious heat.

Leccabaffi Ristorante:
Scamorza affumicata
Gnocchetti di semola
Costoletta alla Valdostana
Mixed seafood grill

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Howard Seftel