Grandiose décor, beautiful-people servers rattling off flavor-of-the-day food themes, a big-name chef, the environmental sustainability of the chair your ass is currently occupying — it's all about concepts these days.
How about this for a concept: no concept.
Flickering candlelight, the perfume of baking bread, the laughs of good friends, and a bowl of pasta — firm and smooth, at its peak of texture, and heavy with mushrooms, tomato sauce, and herbs — all savored between sips of red wine under a starry sky. This is the kind of comforting simplicity that trumps high-concept anytime.
Maybe that's why Cave & Ives Portico Grill, despite a few missteps, is the sort of place you'll want to visit again.
In case you were wondering, the name is a nod to the nicknames of owners and brothers Cary and Ivan Morrow (Cary was called "Caveman" as an ASU student). The brothers, who also own Sacks Art of Sandwicherie, opened this dinner-only eatery in April on the second floor of a blocky new structure, where Sacks occupies most of the ground floor.
The building isn't much to look at, but the concrete steps up to the second-floor entrance of Cave & Ives lead to a surprisingly cozy gathering place. Past a partially sectioned-off room for a "large" party (six to eight) and the restaurant's small kitchen, the long, hallway-like room, bathed in tones of brown and accented with oil paintings and aerial views of Valley landmarks, features a wood-beamed ceiling, a small, two-sided bar, and retractable floor-to-ceiling windows leading out to a second-story portico (the Italian word for porch), with a fireplace, additional seating, and a view of Camelback Mountain.
The menu is no-frills. There are appetizers and salads, a few pastas, some Greek-inspired flatbreads, and Neapolitan-style pizzas cranked out via wood-fired oven courtesy of pizzaiolo Dylan Scott, who used to do pies at Tommy V's and Marcellino's. In lieu of liquor, the bar menu compensates with a solid selection of right-priced wines in addition to American craft beers and premium imports.
Most of the limited offering of Italian and Mediterranean dishes are creations of the brothers (Ivan lived in Europe for a few years, and the two say they have traveled extensively). Ivan heads up the two kitchens — one downstairs, in Sacks, for pasta and appetizers and one upstairs for salads, additional appetizers, and pizzas. A dumbwaiter runs constantly during dinner service. Most everything is made in-house, with some of the sausages made exclusively for the restaurant by Schreiner's Fine Sausage.
There are more than a few good options when it comes to starter dishes: a fresh Caprese on crusty artisan bread, "Bravas" fries — light, crispy and dusted with a tasty concoction of lemon salt, rosemary, and Parmesan, served with a dunk-worthy aioli dipping sauce — and a steaming bowl of white braise de clams, its aromatic broth of garlic, onions, fresh tomatoes, lemons, and herbs in a buttery white wine sauce worthy of both savoring and sopping with the request of additional bread.
When it came to the baked cheese tartlets, the cheese Gorgonzola paired with apple honey pecan streusel fared better than the prosciutto in the roasted tomato pesto and basil atop triple cream Brie — the latter unfortunately was overcooked and resulted in small, hardened bits that were unpleasant to eat. The sweetness of the third tartlet, with berries and triple cream Brie (a substitute for the basil and fig balsamic marmalade listed on the menu) was tasty but seemed out of place with its savory companions.
When my friendly server told me a Cave & Ives guest routinely pops in from Scottsdale just for the chopped salad, I couldn't resist ordering one. It certainly read like a winner — salami, capicolla, smoked ham provolone, roasted red bell peppers, pepperoncini, Kalamata olives, tomatoes, red onions, and Parmesan and Asiago cheeses in a balsamic vinaigrette — too bad it didn't eat like one. A victim of "too much of a good thing," a heaping helping of the cured meats muscled out the other flavors, save the olives. For a chopped salad with so many elements, this was a two-note dish.
Meat fares better — much better — in pasta selections. The saffron shrimp scampi in a lemon butter white wine sauce, although decent, isn't nearly as interesting or as deeply flavorful as the Sicilian sausage and sautéed mushroom pasta in a creamy tomato sauce or its even better sibling, the pasta ragu. Featuring slow-roasted Italian beef, onion, bell peppers, mushrooms, and basil in a red wine tomato sauce and topped with Parmesan, the result is a simple, well-seasoned, well-prepared dish in a portion size that won't burst the breadbasket.
Tasty thin crusts, edged with warm, brown bubbles of baked dough, laid the foundation for a tight selection of Neapolitan-style pizzas. The Red Goat, featuring goat and ricotta cheeses, was fine but paled in comparison to the unique flavor of the Provence chicken. This pizza's earthy goodness, from artichoke hearts and roasted potatoes and tomatoes, revealed a nice tanginess, courtesy of tender pieces of lemon rosemary roasted chicken and a jaunty pesto sauce. The Sicilian combo, with the same spicy homemade sausage as the pasta, was just as successful, especially with the addition of pepperoni and capicolla, roasted red bell peppers, and Kalamata olives atop a rich tomato sauce.
The must-order pizza is the Tuscan Pie. A wonderful, well-balanced mix of sweet, salty, and savory, the Tuscan features smoked prosciutto, sliced apples, crumbled Gorgonzola, arugula, and mozzarella atop a swoon-worthy fig balsamic marmalade sauce. If there's a pizza I might never tire of ordering, the Tuscan may be it.
Try as I might, I could not get my arms (or my mouth) around the flatbreads at Cave & Ives. In concept, they're Greek-inspired creations with medleys of fresh ingredients set atop piadina-style (Italian) flatbread. In reality, they're sizable mounds of frustration. The ingredients are there; it's figuring out how to eat the thing that's the problem. These dishes are too big and messy to pick up, so I just picked at the piled-too-high ingredients with a fork. Thankfully, there was an exceptionally tasty side of orzo salad made with sweet dried cranberries that was easy to gobble up.
A chocolate pecan pie with chocolate mousse and a cheese cake topped with fruit make good on the dessert list, but if you've come for gluttonous decadence (and a friend or two), you'll want to order the bananas foster crêpes, bursting with crème anglaise and pecans and drizzled with caramel sauce.
On all my visits, as I was leaving the restaurant, everyone from servers to bussers to even the chefs asked me what I ordered and how I liked the food. I was charmed by their seeming burning desire to be accepted. I left feeling that Cave & Ives, like a good friend with a few flaws, is one you want to succeed.