This is the time of year to reflect and count our blessings. What am I thankful for? I'm thankful my daughter's not dating O.J.; I'm thankful I haven't lent Fife Symington money; I'm thankful I don't have Suns season tickets.
I'm especially thankful for a couple of new-to-town blessings we couldn't count this time last year. Two fine Italian restaurants have recently opened their doors, oases in a desert where most of their competitors aim no higher than red-checked-oilcloth mediocrity.
In particular, the arrival of Arrivederci should be as welcome to Italian-food fans as the arrival of Squanto was to the Pilgrims. Why? To put it simply: Arrivederci dishes out some of the best Italian fare you'll find in the Valley.
You wouldn't think so judging from the location. Arrivederci does business in a jinxed shopping-center storefront on the southwest corner of Scottsdale Road and Thunderbird. Over the past few years, this location has been a burial grounds, a restaurant La Brea Tar Pits swallowing up one enterprise after another without a trace. But the danger should pass once word of Arrivederci's kitchen prowess gets out.
It's a casual, cozy place, with a touch of class. (There's another branch in a fancy section of San Diego.) Wine racks divide the small bar area from the dining room. Tables are set with linen, candles and a silk flower arrangement. Long white curtains shield views of the parking lot and street. Instead, diners gaze on evocative, black-and-white photos of 1940s Italy that look like stills from neorealist films of the era. The piped-in music, however, sounds a jarring note, a head-scratching mix of schlock pop like "Copacabana" and "Fernando" alternating with "Come Back to Sorrento" and selections from Turandot.
But you certainly won't be scratching your head over the food. Arrivederci hits on all cylinders, from breadbasket to after-dinner drink, and all points in between. It's almost impossible to take a bite of anything and not be tempted to start purring.
The formula? It's no secret: First-class ingredients combined with first-class preparation. You get a hint of it immediately, when you dip the wonderful homemade Italian bread into the powerful pesto dipping sauce.
The appetizers take up in earnest the assault on your taste buds. The caprese is hands-down the best I've had in this time zone, a monument to simplicity, freshness and flavor. It features homemade mozzarella rolled with fragrant roasted peppers atop a robust slice of tomato, all garnished with greens and fresh basil.
Melanzana Sorrentina is equally luscious, thin slices of grilled eggplant baked under a bubbling canopy of mozzarella cheese, moistened with a light, almost summery tomato sauce.
Looking for something a little more offbeat? Order insalata d'anatra, strips of tender, smoked breast of duck, tossed with pine nuts, raisins and bacon, resting on a bed of warm spinach. I'm getting hungry again just writing about it. In comparison, the grilled mushrooms, stuffed with seasoned breadcrumbs, seem somewhat tame.
Main dishes will set your heart racing as if you'd just completed the New Times Phoenix 10K. The menu lists the noodle platters under the heading "Pasta Divina," and that description is no exaggeration. Mezzelune all'Aragosta, homemade ravioli in the shape of a half-moon, are pure heavenly delight. The pouches are filled with lobster, then coated with a saffron cream sauce so rich and intense it left me woozy. Wow.
Fettuccine also gets star treatment. The fettuccine Bel Paese brings pasta tossed with a heady blend of wild mushrooms, in a lip-smacking brandy cream sauce. Paglia e Fieno al Pesto is just as hard-hitting, fettuccine tossed with green beans and pine nuts in a garlicky pesto sauce. Even the lasagna seems special, spruced up with seasoned meat and a smooth bechamel sauce.
I worried that the kitchen might let down with the protein-based entrees: seafood, chicken, veal. Not a chance. This kitchen refuses to slack off.
I offer in evidence pollo Soronno, chicken breast sauteed with amaretto and perked up with almonds. If there's a more vigorously flavored poultry dish in this town, it hasn't come to my attention. The veal alla Milanese, meanwhile, rivals the Valley's best models. It's the classic preparation, three pounded medallions dipped in egg and rolled with breadcrumbs, fried to a golden, buttery sheen and colorfully sprinkled with diced tomatoes. And shrimp fans can savor six meaty, butterflied crustaceans in the gamberi Nostrani, enlivened with artichokes, mushrooms and tomatoes in a hearty white-wine sauce.
The only less-than-stellar entree? That would be the seafood risotto, an evening special that didn't quite measure up in intensity or creamy richness.
The house-made desserts are also showstoppers. In most places, the chocolate mousse torte, put together with Belgian chocolate and layers of Kahlua-spiked sponge cake, would be the headline act. Not here. That's because the fantastic Italian cheesecake, fashioned from ricotta cheese and barley, will literally make you gasp with delight. It's a temptation you'll have no regrets yielding to.
Arrivederci has the service part of the restaurant equation figured out, too. On one visit, the waiter brought over complimentary glasses of sambuca at the end of the meal. On another, he told us dessert was on the house. Is this how to win friends and influence people? You bet it is.
Many words may spring to mind after a meal here. If you appreciate superb Italian food, I assure you "arrivederci" won't be one of them.
Salute, 13216 North Seventh Street, 866-9905. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.
The proprietors of Salute seem to have worked out all the restaurant angles. They've come to a growing, affluent part of town where there's no upscale Italian restaurant competition. And they've set up shop in a storefront next to AJ's, a high-end supermarket, in a shopping strip just two minutes from the Pointe Hilton at Squaw Peak and hundreds of pricey new homes. I guess they've figured that a good Italian restaurant could probably attract both resort guests and neighborhood folks searching for highly dependable Italian food in a pleasant setting.
They've figured right.
It's not surprising that Salute has restaurant smarts. The enterprise is run by the family of Maria Ranieri, who operates the excellent Maria's When in Naples in Scottsdale.
They've turned the space into a pretty room, framed by arches and columns. Big flower arrangements provide a splash of color, while Italian folk songs and opera arias provide background atmospheric reinforcement.
The menu isn't at all trendoid. It's not even mildly adventurous. But the food is knowledgeably prepared and reliably tasty. On occasion, it's even outstanding.
Those adjectives, however, don't apply to the first taste of Salute you'll get, the lackluster garlic bread. Surely Salute can do better than this. After all, these days even chain Italian restaurants let diners nibble on right-out-of-the-oven focaccia or fresh-baked bread dipped into olive oil or pesto.
Maybe it's a ploy to get you to order appetizers. But trickery isn't necessary, certainly not for the Michelangelo. It's excellent, fresh mozzarella lined with a bit of prosciutto and topped with an irresistible caponata, a relish put together with eggplant, peppers and onions that sings with flavors of Italy. Black mussels simmered in a garlicky white wine and tomato broth also give off appealing Mediterranean scents. The antipasto isn't quite in Maria's When in Naples' class (it's the best in town), but the combination of meats, mushrooms, roasted peppers, grilled eggplant and squash, cheese, tomato, olives and caponata doesn't leave much room for complaint. The pile of dull, fried calamari, however, does.
Pasta entrees are reasonably priced and more than reasonably effective. What can be simpler than spaghetti in garlic and olive oil, generously tossed with artichokes, mushrooms and cheese? At $8.95, you can see why simplicity is a virtue. Cannelloni Rossini is expertly fashioned, fresh pasta tubes filled with ground veal and chicken, drizzled with a bechamel sauce. And eggplant Parmesan also gives you your money's worth, layered with three kinds of cheese and coated with a fresh tomato sauce.
The kitchen knows what to do with animal protein, too. In particular, one evening's seafood special reeled in the flavors. The chef paired shrimp and scallops with a mouthwatering brandy cream sauce, then adorned the platter with fresh fettuccine blanketed with a cover of fontina cheese. Yes--it's as good as it sounds.
Pollo alla Valdostana is a chicken version of a traditional northern Italian veal dish. Chicken breast comes rolled and stuffed with cheese, spinach and peppers, then swabbed with a wine mushroom sauce. Bowtie pasta in a creamy marinara sauce provides pleasing accompaniment. Veal fans will appreciate veal Michelangelo, sauteed medallions garnished with artichokes and mushrooms in a tarragon-scented cream sauce. But the calamari and mussels fra diavolo are a bit of a snooze, betrayed by a "spicy tomato sauce" that lacked much of a bite.
Ready for sweets? Tiramisu and a flourless chocolate cake are routinely good desserts, but they're not necessarily worth saving room for. The cappuccino chocolate cheesecake is. It's wonderful, with perfect texture and full of deep flavors.
Moderately priced and moderately upscale, Salute is everything a neighborhood Italian restaurant should be in this neighborhood. It should appeal both to the midweek, too-pooped-to-cook crowd as well as the weekend splurgers. If you live in north-central Phoenix, it's easy to agree with Mr. Rogers: It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood.
Cappuccino chocolate cheesecake