Cafe Reviews

Grazie, Radda

I've always loathed Thanksgiving, so don't expect some column from me telling you how to cook a turkey with a beer can stuck up its butt, or where to snarf the best stuffing in the Valley. Everything about the holiday nauseates me: the enforced familial bonding; the orgy of unoriginal overindulgence; the flatulent, recumbent stultification brought on by eating too much gobbler; the football and mindless parades. But I'm most grossed out by that flavorless fowl at the center of everyone's feast.

Basically, turkey is culinary plastic. You can mold it into most any shape, make it look like ham, or use it for meat loaf or faux beef jerky. This elasticity of purpose corresponds directly to its tastelessness. Indeed, the idea of an entire holiday revolving around this bland bird makes me want to go postal.

But even for a crab-ass critic like me, there are reasons to give thanks. For instance, no turkey for me this year, as I'm not obliged to attend some family get-together where we all sit around and watch grandma gag on giblets. And, in general, I'm grateful that I work in an area with a thriving restaurant scene, one where eateries are always coming and going, giving me plenty to write about.

A perfect example of this nonstop churning of restaurants is the five-month-old Radda Caffe-Bar, which took over the space once occupied by short-lived Nantucket Seafood -- in the same cul-de-sac as Sushi on Shea in north Scottsdale. Nantucket was an oyster bar, and a hit with the critics, including myself. But its lack of ambiance doomed it. The interior was stark and uninviting, and when you're plunking down some serious shekels on shellfish, you want a little atmosphere.

Radda offers a radical change from Nantucket. The once hospital-white walls are now a comforting color scheme of taupe, avocado green and rust red. Crescent-shaped crimson couches from Tempe's reZurrection gallery bookend the one-room establishment, and the bar has been completely transformed into a hipster hang, with stylish lamps over it. The simplest and most important improvement? Sheer curtains that block the ugliness of the parking lot beyond the glass window storefront.

All this has been accomplished by a fab foursome of newbie restaurateurs in their 20s: chefs Lori Hassler and Ben Leitner, and Hassler's brother Daylon Greer and their pal Brian Fazio. Hassler and Leitner focus on the food, while Greer is in charge of service, and Fazio the bookkeeping. But they all kick in whenever tables need busing or water requires freshening.

The name of the place comes from a town in the Chianti region of Italy where Hassler, a former Italian and French translator, spent time. In Radda, Hassler was inspired by neighborhood cafes where you could obtain everything from a nosh to a nightcap. This Tuscan way of life informs much of the menu, which proffers pastas, salads and grilled viands. The restaurant's also big on wine and beer marinades, as well as using multiple layers of flavor in its preparations.

Both Radda's bruschetta and its stuffed dates are winners in the appetizer category. The dates are filled with Portuguese chorizo, then wrapped in bacon, an excellent pairing of the sweet and savory. My only quibble is that you only get five of the little suckers for a $7 appetizer, so I wouldn't complain if a couple more were added to the plate. For bruschetta, you choose from eight possibilities for toppings. I adored three in particular: the spicy white cannellini beans with rosemary chile oil; the mascarpone covered with prosciutto and topped off with fig preserves; and goat cheese sprinkled with pine nuts, raisins, cranberries and walnuts. Of the ones I sampled, just the shaved steak with grain mustard and tomatoes and the caprese seemed so-so. Even then, I think it was the taste-bud fireworks provided by the others that made the steak and caprese pale next to them.

The "Tuscan grilled asparagus" didn't do much for me. I mean, it tasted like grilled asparagus, and that's about it. But as far as salads go, Radda's Star Caesar is truly stellar, and one of the best Caesar salads served in the Valley. Whole leaves of romaine are bathed in a light dressing with cracked pepper, a heavy coat of Parmesan shavings, and a few big, breadlike croutons. The romaine was crisp and fresh, and eventually I ended up eating it by hand, one leaf at a time.

I only tried one pasta, Radda's pesto penne, and here the sauce made the dish. The pasta itself was rather ordinary, but fortunately it was overwhelmed by a thick pesto, which toward the bottom of the plate had the consistency of warm, crunchy peanut butter in a pool of extra-virgin olive oil. I could've eaten a whole bowl of this nutty ambrosia with a spoon.

Of the entrees, my fave was the coffee-jalapeño barbecued steak. Here, molasses-marinated tri-tip is skewered and grilled, then smeared with a dark, coffee-jalapeño concoction. That coffee-jalapeño coulis is like a caffeine-laden chili, and if I were more eccentric than I already am, I might carry about an enameled box of it with me, so I could snort a handful whenever I please.

Other standouts entree-wise include the white wine pork tenderloin and the "drunk chicken." The first is glazed in a honey/white wine/thyme combo that doesn't overpower the natural succulence of the pork flesh. The second is made up of layers of chicken breast and portobello mushroom, grilled in red wine, with peppercorn, mustard and lemon.

The most expensive item on Radda's reasonably priced menu, the filet mignon tips, had the least appeal for me. At fault here was not the Gorgonzola crumbles or the balsamic reduction, but the steak itself, which seemed tougher than it should have been. A tasty side of pan-fried potato chunks made up for this, as did some well-prepared broccoli and snow peas.

Radda's bill of fare lists a couple of possibilities for dessert, but head straight for the tiramisu, served in a bulbous glass, with made-from-scratch Marsala-mascarpone egg cream. At even the best Eye-tie joints in town, tiramisu is often an afterthought, and ends up being a huge letdown. But in Radda's tiramisu you can really taste the amaretto and the coffee. It's one of many reasons I suppose I should say, despite my stated distaste for the season, grazie, Radda.

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