Cafe Reviews

Forn Affairs

The phone is ringing again, rattling in its perch on the reservations podium next to the bar at Acqua e Sale. We've been listening to it all through dinner, not because it's an irritation to our meal, but because we've been eavesdropping on the host. He's telling yet another caller that, no, she's reached the long-standing Il Forno restaurant, not the new Il Fornaio on Scottsdale Road. Does she still want to make reservations?

Often enough, the host tells the party thanks for calling anyway, and hangs up. He's been polite the entire evening, but the situation's got to be driving him nuts. The confusion over the similar names has been so prevalent since Il Fornaio opened last February that Il Forno owner Daniel Malventano changed his restaurant's name last month -- to Acqua e Sale. It'll be a while yet before the dining public -- and the 411 folks at the phone company -- catch on.

It's an unfortunate state of affairs. Because while both Il Forno -- oops, Acqua e Sale -- and Il Fornaio are Italian restaurants, that's where the similarity ends. Acqua e Sale is a privately owned eatery that serves remarkably good, upscale Italian cuisine. Il Fornaio is a chain, with dozens of locations across America, that serves mid-level Italian food. Acqua e Sale is a tony parcel of three intimate dining rooms, and Il Fornaio is a yawning broad space of booths with a wall of glass overlooking an office complex parking lot. Acqua e Sale is fantastic, Il Fornaio is simply fine. Not exactly interchangeable dining experiences.

This isn't the first time Malventano has adapted his restaurant to reflect market conditions, however. When he first opened eight years ago, it was with a simpler menu, a bistro decor and much lower prices. Valley diners at the time equated Italian food with staples like pizza, calzones and periodic adventures like gnocchi or pasta with cream and -- ooh -- pine nuts. So Malventano delivered, with entrees priced under $10.

About three years ago, as the Valley's dining scene was evolving, Malventano stepped up with it. Black-and-white tile flooring was replaced with dark carpeting, and the walls glittered with sleek cherry wood and expansive mirrors. A decor of stylish, ornately framed black-and-gold prints replaced huge jars of dried pasta. The menu was goosed up with a few more interesting items like carpaccio, frutti di mare (cold, marinated calamari, shrimp, octopus, clams and olives) and pollo in agro dolce (chicken breast stuffed with wild mushrooms, figs and plums in a vin santo sauce). Prices doubled.

Now, it's the new millennium, and exotica are so accessible they're almost boring (Subway's now serving asiago Caesar sauce on its fast-food sandwiches, no kidding). Diners wanted to be wowed, so Malventano has kicked up his fare yet another notch. Niceties now dot the menu: black truffle oil, duck prosciutto, white truffle sauce, escolar. Happily enough, prices are still in the same range. This is no cheap feast, to be sure, topping out at $28.95 for a gorgeous Australian rack of lamb that's doused in an herbal marinade and roasted in a wood-burning oven. But with quality this good, I'm not complaining.

Every summer, Malventano tours Italy, scouring trattorias for interesting dishes. On his most recent trip, he also commissioned the talents of Italian artist Marino Moretti to create his new logo and artwork for his new menu. I don't know what size the original art pieces are (they're just a few inches when printed on the menu), but framed on the wall, or silkscreened on tee shirts, the colorful, Monty Python-esque illustrations could be collectors' items.

Now, the phone ringing at the bar really isn't intrusive, especially masked by the piped-in contemporary Italian jazz vocals. Still, diners seeking full refinement will be most content in the restaurant's front dining room, embracing just a handful of white-clothed tables. It's sitting here one evening that allows me to witness an Acqua e Sale staffer trot out to the valet and hand him a plate of pasta. Nice.

The gesture's almost as good as the plates themselves, an eclectic mix of beautiful, hand-painted china. Presentation is everything, so the saying goes, and in this case, it does seem as if the pretty saucers add even greater charm to prosciutto d'anatra, a duck appetizer. Five slender slices of bright red bird lounge against a pattern of bright blue flowers, edged in a wisp of flavorful fat and musky with truffle oil. A center strip of crunchy crostini smeared with heady black truffle spread usually finishes the plate, but tonight's special finds it paired with moist buffalo mozzarella and slices of organic tomato, too.

There's little plate showing beneath a full moon of fine carpaccio, however. Lots of top-grade beef, sliced translucent thin, melts under a light drizzle of black truffle oil and shavings of fresh Parmesan ringed by zingy arugula. Salmone con melone comes in a more delicate portion, lovely in silky slices, centered by rosettes of cantaloupe stuffed with tomato chunks. Even calamari, typically weighty critters, benefit from the quickest frying and light batter -- the squid rings are deep-sea gossamer dipped in a zesty, olive oil-based marinara that does decadent double duty as a dipping sauce for warm, crusty bread.

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Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet