Somewhere in Phoenix, gathering dust in a warehouse, are the remains of an ancient Italian-restaurant civilization.
Look: There are the red-checked tablecloths, the wicker Chianti baskets, the candles wedged in empty wine bottles, the cassette tapes featuring endless loops of "O Sole Mio" and "Come Back to Sorrento," the tourist-bureau posters of the Colosseum and San Marco Square, the pictures of the proprietor's ancestors in the hills of Sicily, an Italian flag and the metal chafing dishes that once held the house spaghetti-and-meatball special.
Pretty soon, I suspect, these once-familiar artifacts of traditional Italian-restaurant culture will seem as distant to us as Hohokam clay pots or Anasazi farming tools. Why? Because no trendy Italian restaurant in the hip Valley scene of the 1990s would ever dream of using these cliched decor touches.
It's not only the settings that have changed. So have the menus.
Garlic bread? No way. Today, we nibble on bruschetta. Pasta draped with cheese? These days, the chef refers to it as tortellini tre formaggi. Veal parmigiana? You must mean the scaloppine alla Valdostana. Spumoni for dessert? Sorry. The kitchen specializes in tiramisu and zuppa inglese.
I've just paid a visit to the Italian-restaurant future. The place is called Tutto and, naturally, it's in Scottsdale. I've also taken a trip to the Italian-restaurant past. It's called Rosario Ristorante and, naturally, it's on the west side.
After only a few months in operation, noisy, bustling Tutto has been embraced by the beautiful people, the kind of well-dressed folks who get nervous if they have to venture west of 32nd Street. I'm sure they like Tutto's modern-Roman theatricality: brick walls, arched windows framed with swaths of red velvet, a gilt-edged mirror, Roman columns, arrangements of fresh flowers, white linen tablecloths adorned with the inevitable Tynant water bottle used as a vase and light, and thumpa-thumpa music.
But someone goofed big-time when it came to planning the women's rest room. My wife tells me that it can hold only one occupant at a time. On a busy Saturday night, she reports, the disgruntled women waiting in a long line had no trouble settling on a topic of conversation. And they weren't discussing the fine points of the food, either.
Too bad, because I can report that the food here is good enough to talk about.
Though the appetizers all have Italian names, there's nothing very foreign about most of them. You'll encounter starters like spinach dip, escargots, calamari and focaccia.
If you want to get the meal off to a rousing start, point to the melanzane al forno. It's luscious baked eggplant, stuffed with goat cheese and moistened with a highly effective tomato sauce. If this appetizer had also appeared as a main dish, I might have ordered it again. Mussels get skillful treatment, too: five greenlip bivalves breaded and grilled in the shell, coated with a spicy tomato sauce.
Carpaccio di tonno, a Japanese twist on an Italian theme, seems to be the appetizer of the moment on trendy Valley menus. I've been seeing it all over town: translucently thin pieces of raw tuna marinated in lime, fanned across a big plate, surrounded by a bushel of capers. (Traditional Italian carpaccio features raw sliced beef, drizzled with olive oil, lemon and a bit of Parmesan.)
It's pretty and tasty, but hard to eat: The tuna's soft, squishy texture makes it difficult to spear with a fork. It also doesn't make much of a dent in your appetite. Of course, you could fill up on the tasty minirolls and aioli (garlic mayonnaise) dip. But this will produce a flavor clash.
Entrees are first-rate across the board. I was particularly smitten with the rabbit, an animal-protein source which doesn't hop onto many local main-dish lists. The kitchen secured a very meaty creature, coated it with Mediterranean spices and poured on a spoon-lickin' sauce.
Misto alla Livornese, the most expensive platter at $18, is equally satisfying. It's a fish stew, like cioppino: a big bowl swimming with mussels, clams, shrimp, scallops and hunks of fish, served over pasta in a fragrant tomato broth.
Saltimbocca means "jump in the mouth," presumably in tribute to its irresistible taste. Tutto's version of this dish does jump. It features veal medallions drizzled in a creamy sauce, accented with lots of sage. Tender roast leg of lamb, cut from the bone and thinly sliced, also benefits from a seasoning boost, this time from rosemary and thyme. Unremarkable roasted potatoes and veggies accompany most of the entrees.
Pizza is a cheaper way to fill up. Tutto's seven models are very continental, featuring soft, chewy crusts and toppings that make genuine pizza sense. The pizza covered with olives, wild mushrooms and mild sausage caught my eye, then captured my belly.
Pasta is another worthy main-dish alternative. The pollo ebbro puts together a hefty portion of linguini, walnuts and roast chicken in a delicate vodka sauce.
Desserts may be the best part of the meal. I've downed scores of tiramisu over the years; Tutto's is on the short list of the best in town. The cake is soaked through with espresso, and the chocolate casing adds a nice touch. An Italian creme brulee is another overworked sweet that Tutto breathes life into. Here, the rich custard comes inside a sugar cookie, surrounded by raspberries and strawberries. And if the Full Moon appears on the dessert tray, don't hesitate. It's a chocolate cornucopia shell, stuffed with semifrozen pistachio mousse.
In a town swimming with Italian restaurants, it's hard for a new place to make a splash. Tutto, though, seems poised to become part of the municipal pool.
Rosario Ristorante, 9250 North 43rd Avenue, Glendale, 931-1810. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, Tuesday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Sunday and Monday, 5 to 9 p.m.
Trendy? Rosario Ristorante is about as trendy as a coonskin cap, an I Like Ike button or a Brooklyn Dodgers team poster. One look at its menu is all you need to realize that the place is firmly rooted in the past. But it seems the loyal regulars--a mostly older crowd who pack the place on weekends--wouldn't have it any other way.
Actually, Rosario probably struck the neighborhood as a bit glitzy when it opened a decade ago. After all, the tables are double-clothed with white-on-burgundy linens. The walls are covered with mirrors with a couple of tourist-bureau posters hung discreetly in a corner. Lights are very low, and classical music is piped in.
The menu perfectly matches the Italian-continental decor. There's nothing here your parents wouldn't have been comfortable with 40 years ago, when they went out for Saturday-night Italian. These days, it's still comfort food.
Check out the appetizers, which feature traditional favorites like baked clams, a half-dozen breaded mollusks in an extremely salty sauce. Stuffed mushrooms are another familiar first-course option. They sit in a pile of oil, but the tasty filling of breadcrumbs and shrimp can help you overlook that. You may even want to dip your toasted garlic bread to sop up the offending liquid.
Meals come with soup or salad. The greenery is uninspired, a lazy mix of iceberg lettuce and purple cabbage that probably would have put diners to sleep in the 1890s. In the 1990s, there's no excuse. Soup is marginally perkier. It's stracciatella, which resembles Chinese egg-drop soup. The problem with Rosario's model is flavor--it doesn't seem to have any.
The flavors pick up considerably when the main dishes appear. Some of these platters even shine. Top honors go to the pastas, particularly the tortellini Rosario. It's a hearty portion of meat-filled pasta dumplings in a savory cream sauce, studded with walnuts. If you don't enjoy this pasta, you don't have a pulse.
There's nothing tricky about the lasagna, but it is deftly fashioned: a thick wedge aided by a rich tomato sauce. Pasta romantico can compete in the same league as the tortellini and lasagna. It's a mound of spaghetti adorned with four meaty shrimp, tickled with lots of garlic and capers, all smoothed in a zippy marinara sauce laced with cognac.
Some of the chicken, veal and seafood dishes also provide uncomplicated pleasure. Veal Genovese brings a small portion of tender, first-rate veal, sauteed in lemon butter and tarted up with a few artichoke hearts and a teaspoon of sliced mushrooms. The cioppino puts together seven mussels, three shrimp, three juicy scallops and a fistful of calamari and octopus over a bed of spaghetti, all brightened by a zesty marinara sauce.
Pollo alla Zingeralla is supposed to combine chicken breast with Italian sausage, peppers and mushrooms. But if there was even a trace of sausage in this dish, it would take an instrument, like an electron microscope, to find it. Without the sausage, this dish seemed one-dimensionally bland.
The kitchen doesn't put much effort into dessert. Along with some supplier-provided staples like cannoli, cheesecake and spumoni, there's a low-key homemade creme caramel that ends the meal with a whimper, not a bang.
Rosario is no waiting-to-be-discovered ethnic gem. But it is a solid neighborhood-Italian spot in a part of town that doesn't sport too many solid neighborhood-Italian spots.
Melanzane al forno