Cafe Reviews

HOLIDAY

Future Super Bowls and past papal visits aside, we probably couldn't have picked a busier night to visit Frascati Ristorante at Centerpoint in Tempe. That's right, faithful dining accomplice Goat and I visit Frascati on the evening of the Paul McCartney concert at Sun Devil Stadium.

It is a night to see and be seen. To dress up in weird costumes. To celebrate while spending big bucks on babysitters at home. We are along simply to observe--and to eat, of course.

Frascati's informally attired maitre d' is amazingly gracious. Due to parking snafus, we arrive late but our reservation still is honored. He promises to seat us promptly. Under the circumstances, we are happy to wait.

From the crush at the door, you'd think the restaurant was serving the Last Supper. Both maitre d' and assistant deal effectively with the horde. People without reservations are turned away politely but firmly. "There is a two-hour wait, minimum," the assistant announces at intervals. "You're welcome to wait, but you won't make it to the concert."

Sure, there's grumbling, but this kind of honesty earns my respect. As a potential diner, I would much rather know my chances up-front than be duped into staying through management greed.

Ten minutes later, Goat and I are seated in the restaurant's rectangular dining room. Quite appropriately, the Beatles' "Long and Winding Road" plays on the radio. I am surprised that three large tables are still empty. It is after six; the show starts at eight.

Typical is one nearby table filled with fortysomething types. They are dressed in embroidered denim, Afros, granny glasses and headbands. I mistake one woman for Uncle Sam, but Goat corrects me. "That's Sgt. Pepper," he whispers. The service at Frascati is excellent under these extreme circumstances--it is the epitome of grace under pressure. We receive menus, water and bread in timely fashion. Our waiter comes over shortly and we ask him a few questions. "Tell us about the cold antipasto," we say.

"It's prosciutto, provolone, ham, salami and pineapple."
"Pineapple?"
Our waiter rolls his eyes. "I don't know," he shrugs. "They've been putting it on there lately."

We place our usual large order. We also let our waiter know we're not going to the concert. This information appears to please him. Brightly colored artwork fills the white walls of Frascati's dining room. All of it is for sale. I like the red-and-blue neon heart that colors the room from behind a wall obscuring the wait station. The neon and tonight's bustle give Frascati's the feel of a trendy trattoria.

Our waiter returns to tell us the kitchen is out of calamari. "Out? Completely out?" I ask. He nods solemnly. He's lucky I'm not the Squid Queen. We order shrimp scampi as a replacement.

As warned, antipasto misto alla Romagnola is simply thin slices of meat and cheese on a lettuce-leaf bed. One hard-boiled egg dumped with paprika serves as diversion. There are no tomatoes, no olives, no pineapple. There is also no dressing. I ask for oil and vinegar; a splash or two greatly helps.

Actually, the cold cuts are pleasant enough. The prosciutto is smoky and slightly spicy; the salami pale but wonderfully greasy; the provolone suitably bland. The only disappointment is the ham--which looks and tastes like presliced, packaged Danish product.

The grilled scampi alla Frascati is no bargain at $5.95. Four shrimp of medium size are brought to us in a pool of garlic butter. While they have a nice grilled taste, they are not garlic-y enough. I would not order them again.

The big tables are filled now. Men in Levi's Dockers and women in Liz Claiborne are ordering pasta and toasting each other with glasses of champagne. Everyone is celebrating Paul's arrival in Phoenix. Wine buckets litter the restaurant.

A leggy coed twitches through the dining room en route to powder her nose. Four men at a neighboring table turn in unison as she passes. Their violent head-snapping is not missed by their female tablemates. "You nearly fell out of your chair," one woman admonishes her companion.

Our soup and salad arrive. The minestrone is heated to a perfect temperature. It's a lovely mix of shell pasta, garbanzo beans, carrots, tomato, pepper and celery.

On any other night, the chef's caesar salad is probably decent. Ours, however, is constructed of the tough, outer leaves of romaine lettuce--the kind I throw away. Some leaves make it to the table without being torn at all. The dressing is dry and tastes mostly of Parmesan cheese and herbed croutons.

The time is 7:30. The natives grow restless. One late-arriving table tries to cancel its orders. Another begs for anything that's ready. Our waiter appears at our table. "It's going to be ten minutes on the food," he advises. "May I bring you something to drink?"

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Penelope Corcoran