Gondola rides make me very nervous.
In the old neighborhood, a gondola trip was the fourth step in a four-step program. Step one: waking up next to a severed horse head. Step two: refusing the subsequent offer. Step three: a kiss on each cheek. So when Ristorante Sandolo (a sandolo is a small gondola) informed me that diners receive a free cruise on the Hyatt's lagoon, my first impulse was to contact the federal witness protection program. On the other hand, if your time is up, this place has a lot more appeal than a marsh off the Jersey Turnpike.
Outside, on the restaurant's patio, the palm trees are planted so close together that their fronds form a canopy overhead. Bubbling fountains are lighted up in the courtyard, and an opulent swimming pool beckons. For a few minutes, I imagined myself a guest at some decadent Roman villa.
Then the singing servers appeared.
Sure, Nero's guests probably had to listen to him fiddle, but I'll bet even he didn't require them to endure his staff crooning cornball lyrics to familiar show tunes. We listened to several verses extolling the food and the great pleasure the help derived from bringing our orders (to the melody of "There's No Business Like Show Business"). By the time the crew reached the big finish, I was not only ready for step four, I was ready to do my own paddling. But that would have been a mistake, because I'd have missed a pleasing Italian meal.
The fare here is southern Italian, mostly pizza and pasta, with a few high-end Scottsdale-resort touches.
Those touches appear mostly in the daily appetizer specials. But any menu that offers alternatives to fried mozzarella and fried calamari deserves at least as much applause as the singing help.
Take the tasty scallop polenta terrine. It's not a dish that naturally comes to mind when you think about Italian food, but in this case, imagination paid off. Resting on a bed of wilted greens, it was a beguiling way to start off a meal.
So was the grilled eggplant, a substantial portion fragrant with garlic.
Diners into filling up without shelling out can profitably skip the appetizers altogether. Ristorante Sandolo puts out a basket of small, chewy sourdough loaves with a knockout pesto dip. Man cannot live by bread alone, but this combination could make me hold out until at least the Fourth of July.
As you might expect, pizzas here have a certain designer quality that reflects the setting. At about ten inches, they sport more patrician good looks than plebeian heft. And at a price of $12 a pop, they should deliver the masses a little more mass. These are thin-crust pizzas, crisp and pleasingly oily, not dry. The first-rate seafood version supported scallops, shrimp and calamari, along with bits of flavorful plum tomato.
The sausage, roasted pepper and mushroom variety, though, didn't go much beyond the routine. The toppings certainly didn't reflect $12 worth of imagination.
In contrast, pasta entrees, priced around ten bucks, offer a fair amount of substance and value. The big bowl of linguini al pesto should satisfy most appetites. It packed lots of pine nuts and Parmesan cheese along with the rich pesto sauce. Vermicelli primavera is also excellent--eggplant, cauliflower and broccoli combined in a light, deftly seasoned tomato sauce.
Diners can order half portions of most pasta platters, a nice touch for those afraid of swamping the gondola. Desserts were a bit disappointing. Where were the cannoli, biscotti, zabaglione or other irresistible treats? Instead, there was an institutional tiramisu that might have come from a Hyatt convention meal. The snowball of vanilla ice cream draped with shaved white chocolate didn't offer much flair, either. After some cappuccino, we strolled toward the "dock" and boarded our vessel. Our gondolier poured us some complimentary wine, shoved off and began warbling. "O Sole Mio"? A Verdi aria? Nope. "Your Cheatin' Heart." Mama mia.
New York Temptation Cafe and Pizza, 219 East Baseline, Tempe, 820-8399. Hours: Monday through Thursday, 10:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.
No one will sing to you at this fetching, year-old pizza-and-pasta parlor. But that's unnecessary, anyway, because the food makes such beautiful music.
It's run by New York refugees who've been dishing out Italian food for some 30 years. The place, with its neighborhood feel, looks more like it belongs on Queens Boulevard than in a quaint-looking Tempe shopping center. It's a long, narrow room, with booths up front and a more or less accurate mural of the Manhattan skyline, except for the huge Statue of Liberty hovering over midtown. In the back, there's a counter and stools for customers on the run who want to drop in and grab a slice and a cola. While absolutely essential in New York, which teems with foot traffic, it's a bit out of place here. There hasn't been a pedestrian sighting on Baseline Road since territorial days. The proprietors are proud of what they serve. The pizza maker boasted of importing expensive Wisconsin mozzarella and New York ricotta. It shows. The food is wonderful, substantial and cheap, a trifecta that usually doesn't come in.
The lasagna is nothing short of superb. Thick layers of noodles, mozzarella, ricotta and meat had a distinctive homemade taste. There's nothing flabby about this hearty dish, which spared us the oceans of tomato sauce that often drench indifferent preparations.
Nor will the ravioli remind anyone of what comes out of a can or microwave packet. Eight big, doughy al dente morsels came stuffed with ricotta, for all of $4.50. I've had portions one-third this size for twice the money that weren't half as good. And for an extra buck, you can get a nifty dinner salad enlivened with a perky Italian dressing and a sprinkling of fresh herbs.
The pizza should please New York expatriates. The crust is chewy and crisp, and not too puffy. It's slathered with tons of cheese and is light with the sauce. Best of all, it's got the right balance, so you can pick it up, fold it in half and hold it with one hand, just like they do in the Big Apple. Don't attempt the maneuver, however, without professional guidance, or you may end up with a steaming layer of mozzarella on your lap.
There's a tempting-looking dessert case, but the cognoscenti will focus solely on the homemade cannoli. The pastry shell is fresh, and crammed with sweetened ricotta and drizzled with chocolate. A little candied fruit would have pushed it to perfection, but that's just a quibble.
At New York Temptation Cafe and Pizza, you can get a taste of New York Italian without the aggravation of actually being in New York. It's a good deal.
Ralph's La Hacienda Pizzaria and Italian Food, 15236 North 59th Avenue, Glendale, 978-2780. Hours: Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight; Sunday, 1:30 to 10 p.m.
A popular west-side hangout for almost two decades, this restaurant draws an intriguing crowd. On a crowded Friday night, we spotted families, dating couples and guys getting fortified for the weekend on pizza and beer. The night we were there, customers from the nearby American Graduate School of International Management made the place look like the United Nations cafeteria: hungry Africans, Indians and Japanese might not be getting a taste of home, but their presence indicated the universal appeal of Italian food. Ralph, an affable Sicilian from Palermo, gives them an honest meal for the money. He's certainly not wasting money on capital-intensive decor. It's strictly Neighborhood Joint, with rec-room wood paneling, fake plants and red oilcloth tablecloths wrinkled from long use. Through sliding windows at the back, you can peer into the busy kitchen and spot the leaning tower of pizza boxes.
Don't look for exotic Italian meats and cheeses in the large antipasto. It's strictly American--iceberg lettuce, tomato wedges, bits of ham, salami, cheese and peperoncini. But it came with a terrific homemade salad dressing, heavy on olive oil and basil, that transformed the salad and our waistlines. The dressing obviously has a following: Ralph sells it separately by the quart.
The big draw here is the pizza. Neither the cheese nor the sauce seems the likely source of appeal. Clearly, it's the crust. It's crunchy but light, thick but airy. My family usually eats pizza down to the crust, which then gets tossed away. This time we had no table scraps. The toppings may also account for the pizza's popularity. Pepperoni had plenty of oomph, hot and spicy; sausage came sliced thick, not as crumbly, unidentifiable bits; and the mushrooms were fresh, not canned.
The pasta has its ups and downs. Spaghetti and clam sauce was a winner, tons of tender clams in a cheesy cream sauce. It's not fancy, but tasty, solid fare. The lasagna, though, suffered from some rubbery ground beef. I didn't expect to chew on this dish quite as much as I had to.
Desserts don't appear to be much of a priority. Best is the homemade cannoli, but it won't transport anyone into raptures.
My advice: Get a salad, order a pizza with a heap of toppings and chow, baby.