Cafe Reviews

Colangelo's Kitchen

For whatever blasted reason, my missteps have been costing me beaucoup simoleons of late. So I thought I'd share these with you that you might gain wisdom from my blunders, much along the same lines as we all stand to benefit from Christina Aguilera's decision to go skanky or Miss Spears marrying a redneck from the bayou back home.

My first pratfall came when I plunked down $12 to go to this "American Beauty" exhibition on display through March 14 at the Phoenix Art Museum, though I should have been suspicious of any art show on loan to us from Detroit -- hardly the cultural capital of the universe. The show seeks to educate us about American painting and sculpture from 1770 to 1920, but I quickly found that I'd forked over a dozen smackers to learn that prior to the 1880s, most American art sucked donkey. Other than pieces from expatriates such as John Singer Sargent or Julius Stewart, most of what's in "American Beauty" could rival Thomas "The Painter of Light" Kinkade in atrociousness.

I experienced a similarly distasteful loss of funds on my first visit to the new Italian eatery il Palazzetto (the "little palace") at Jerry Colangelo's America West Arena. But this had less to do with the quality of what was served than the fact that I inadvertently chose a game night to meet a passel of pals there: among these, Uncle Edward, his nephew Lance, the charming, pale-skinned Countess Cynthia, her escort Sir David, and my own lady love, the beautiful Madame X. Driving past il Palazzetto, I felt like the White Rabbit looking for that hole in the hedge, save for the fact I was seeking a parking space! My whole party was already outside waiting for me as I realized the joint has no valet service.

I was forced to park in a structure two blocks away and pay $6 for the annoyance. Not that I begrudge the $6, but why not have a valet service that charges $6 on game nights? Then a guest about to drop a couple of C-notes, like moi, can begin one's dining experience without fear of a stroke. Apparently this is too much trouble for the management company, Levy Restaurants, which operates establishments nationwide from Atlanta to Oakland.

Another thing that bugged me, which I might as well get off my chest right now, were the TV screens tuned in to the bloody game so we had to watch the Suns while supping. The TV screens would have fit well in a Hooters, maybe, but at a high-end Eye-tie hash house where entrees run as high as $34? I know, I know: "It's at the arena, bubblehead, what did you expect?" But trebling the irritation was the fact that one wall of the restaurant opens out onto the arena's concession stands. This means that during halftime, one shares air with the hoi polloi as they grab a sandwich at Subway. There is a black curtain that can be closed to block this mall activity from view, but once again, the restaurant's management only saw fit to pull it after the game was over. I'm sure they were hoping to attract lager louts from the game, but what about those of us who were already their guests? Once again, the lesson is to avoid il Palazzetto when the Suns are at home like beef from a cow with BSE.

The interior is sleek, with tan wood paneling on the walls and ceilings, a glass-and-steel wine vault dividing the place, an open kitchen in the back, and armless wooden chairs with charcoal gray cushions that match the carpeting. I discovered when I returned a week later for lunch that with the curtains pulled, seated away from the bar and the TV sets, the ambiance was pleasant and relaxing. Indeed, during a late lunch, with the place pretty much to myself, and with Sade and Dean Martin taking turns crooning on the stereo, I felt quite at peace and generally delighted in the food and the excellent service.

The menu leans heavily toward corporate taste buds, and I think this is more a reflection of the desires of bosses than chef Andrea Volpi, formerly of his own Scottsdale place, La Locanda, who when left to his own devices produces some truly delectable platters. "It's Levy's menu," he admitted recently when I spoke to him and manager David Schreiner. "But I try to put my spin on things."

Certainly, the tiramisu is all Volpi, and it's easily one of the better examples of this Italian "pick-me-up" in the Valley, no doubt because the Lombardy-born chef learned the recipe from his mama.

Of course, it was Uncle Edward who reminded me of the tiramisu legend, likely apocryphal, that the trifle started as a gift to a recently married couple to give them, ahem, staying power during their honeymoon. Though I cannot endorse the idea of tiramisu as an aphrodisiac, I can say that if Volpi had a ramekin large enough, I'd gladly choose death by drowning in this ambrosial mixture of espresso, mascarpone and sponge cake. Volpi's other standout dessert is his panna cotta, the white, silky, gelatinous custard that looks like molded vanilla Jell-O, if there is such a thing. These two delicacies were so memorable that the other desserts our party shared have long since faded into obscurity.

But I've gotten ahead of myself, food-wise. Let's back it up to the antipasti, which were somewhat hit or miss. I especially adored the cozze arrabbiata -- poached mussels in a spicy tomato sauce. The mussels tasted fresh and tender, and the arrabbiata was fortunately not as hot and spicy as I've had elsewhere. Everyone seemed to like the calamari fritti with lemon aioli, though I kept wishing the fried squid had come drenched in the same arrabbiata that was on my cozze. Both Madame X and I found ourselves dipping our calamari into the arrabbiata left over from the mussels, and, seeing us, our friends followed suit.

The only antipasto I really did not enjoy was the bruschetta, which seemed quite dull. The stiff country bread was extraordinarily thin, even for bruschetta, and the toppings were just too pat: roasted tomatoes, roasted red peppers, and finally, minced olives. Not that it was unappetizing, but I've had better, more inspired bruschetta elsewhere.

The entrees seemed equally scattershot, to judge from what I tasted off the plates of my compadres. Sir David had spaghetti and meatballs, and though the meatballs were of a nice size (Chicago-style, they told us), the sauce seemed far too salty and spicy. It used to be that the one thing you could trust on any Italian menu was the spaghetti and meatballs in marinara or some other tomato-based sauce, but no more. I guess everyone's ashamed to serve their patrons a simple, thick tomato sauce as there are so many good ones to be had on the market. But this is basically a cop-out, and I'd remind restaurateurs that some items are best done simply if at all.

Leave it to the Countess to choose the winning plate of the evening, a special of NY strip with a pink sauce of Gorgonzola, butter and tomato paste. That sauce made that cut of meat, and I liked it so much I'd pour it on my Wheaties in the mornin'. If il Palazzetto's corporate overlords don't make it a permanent part of the menu, they're crazier than Aileen Wuornos was in her day. Would that my roasted veal chop had been topped with same! It was a tender piece of stripling cow, but really needed something to make the flavor pop. As there was no sauce of any kind, I found it tedious to munch on despite its high price tag.

The other entrees we had, the linguini with littleneck clams, the meat tortellini in cream sauce, and the roasted garlic chicken, all tasted satisfactory. But just that -- satisfactory. Nothing else quite impressed on the level of that steak with Gorgonzola sauce. This is where I begin to suspect that chef Volpi needs to be unchained if il Palazzetto is to overtake the mark of standard corporate fare. A great restaurant is always better when it's a reflection of the personality of a great chef.

At last, I should compliment il Palazzetto on its small but well-chosen wine list, which according to Schreiner was chosen by none other than Don Colangelo himself. Selections such as Silverado Sangiovese, Byron Pinot Noir and Raymond Reserve are all topnotch. Even if his plans for downtown are one part Mussolini and one part Mickey Mouse, the cat knows his vino, you have to give him that.

E-mail [email protected], or call 602-229-8443.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons