I can't get Frank Sinatra's voice out of my head as I think about Joe and Myrah Aiello, who woke up one day in the city that never sleeps and decided to leave Manhattan for Arizona. In my version of the "New York, New York" lyrics, the Big Apple's loss is Phoenix's gain.
During the '90s, the couple was busy running Mimi's Macaroni, their Upper West Side Italian spot (which got a nod from the Food Network for being one of the top eateries in the area), as well as a catering business. But eventually, they found themselves raising two small children and headed west in 2000. The Aiellos took their time getting settled in the Valley, working corporate jobs, and waiting until the kids got a little bigger, before launching a new restaurant — Aiello's Fine Italian Dining — in late November.
I'm so glad they finally did.
Located in the building that used to house Panino on Central, Aiello's is a welcome addition to the local dining mix. Crisp white tablecloths and a handsome granite bar make it feel like a special-occasion restaurant, except that it's worthy of frequent visits. Every neighborhood should be so lucky as to have a great little Italian place like this.
Incredible aromas hit my nostrils as soon as I set foot in the place, which quickly shifted my appetite into high gear. Thankfully, the service was warm, welcoming, and fast. Hostesses were equally gracious whether I had a reservation or not (although word's quickly getting out, and at this point, I would recommend calling ahead). A complimentary basket of warm homemade bread and moist slices of focaccia — served with a soft scoop of herb butter and a bowl of spicy roasted red peppers in olive oil — was fun to nibble on while I drooled over the lengthy menu. I never found myself with an empty water or wine glass. And the friendly, prompt waitstaff clearly took its cues from Joe Aiello himself, a gregarious guy who'd step out of the kitchen every so often to personally check in on each table.
As soon as I decided on a bottle from the all-Italian wine list, I was eager to order some appetizers, too.
Salads were a sign of good things to come. There was nothing fancy about the "salad of the house" (ripe Roma tomatoes, baby greens, red onion, shaved Parmesan, and balsamic vinaigrette), the tre colore salad (arugula, endive, radicchio, and shaved Parmesan tossed in lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil), or the caprese with housemade mozzarella. But I appreciated the simplicity and freshness.
Meanwhile, some of the heavier appetizers were as intriguing as the entrees. Good thing I had friends there to share the eggplant rolatini, because I could've easily gobbled it up by myself. Made with thinly sliced eggplant, a light tomato sauce, and layers of mozzarella, ricotta, and pecorino, it looked like a heap of lasagna, and had the same gooey appeal. Even better was the mozzarella carozza, a mouthwatering study in yin and yang. It was two mozzarella-filled sandwiches dipped in egg and sautéed until the cheese melted, then bathed in a heady white wine and lemon sauce with capers, anchovies, and onions. I loved the flavor dynamic, a mingling of creaminess and acidity in every bite.
The delicately fried artichoke hearts, filled with mascarpone and served with a light cream reduction, relied on a similar kind of contrast, although it was much, much more subtle. So subtle, in fact, that a sip of red wine was enough to throw off the balance. I had to take another bite of focaccia to reset my palate before having any more. On the other hand, the sautéed rapini with civilate — pork sausage made with cheese and parsley — was robust enough to withstand a few slurps of pinot nero.
You should've seen the grin on my friend's face when the waiter brought his cavatelli with Sunday gravy. He was in heaven. And no wonder — the dish came with sausage and a meatball. The long, skinny curls of pasta were perfectly al dente, smothered in a slightly sweet tomato sauce. Spaghetti and "Joe's famous meatballs" got a similar response from my sweetie, who is always game for a nice plate of pasta. On its own, the straightforward tomato sauce didn't blow me away, but the moist meatballs were great, with an interesting blend of pork and veal. Two huge ones, as big as racquetballs, made the dish worthwhile.
I ended up eating a lot of meaty dishes. Fat rigatoni were blanketed in beefy Bolognese sauce made with tomatoes, Porcini mushrooms, and Chianti. Lasagna was thick with layers of pasta, cheese, and sausage-studded sauce. Sweet Italian sausage, grilled with sweet red peppers and onions, was served with a side of spaghetti. And veal saltimbocca alla Romana — a thin cutlet pounded with prosciutto — was melt-in-your-mouth tender, topped with mushrooms in marsala sauce and served on a mound of sautéed escarole.
But Aiello's had more than just carnivorous delights. The orechiette fagioli, chewy rounds of pasta with escarole and cannellini beans, was deceptively kicky. It looked like a mild-mannered dish, but some punchy hot pepper and roasted garlic gave it character. And the gnocchi pesto, attractively garnished with pine nuts, shaved Parmesan, and a couple of bright green basil leaves, was so good that it broke my heart a little bit when I couldn't clean my plate. The soft orbs of potato pasta practically dissolved in my mouth, and the sauce was equally ethereal, with fragrant pesto incorporated into velvety cream.
Aiello's desserts were classic, the kind of decadent Italian treats that go best with a shot of espresso. (Mine was served with a twist of lemon rind — a nice old-school touch.) Gelato from Berto's was agreeable, as was the chocolate pyramid, a potent piece of mini-architecture filled with chocolate mousse. I also liked the housemade Italian cheesecake, made with ricotta. It was much lighter than traditional New York cheesecake, which came as a relief after such a big dinner. In the end, the unassuming cannoli hit the right note, with smooth, lightly sweet cream inside a crisp pastry shell.
With luscious food, accessible prices, and an inviting atmosphere, Aiello's is more classy neighborhood joint than high-end dining destination. But even if it's not in your own backyard, it's worth a visit.