Cafe Reviews

Insalata Da-Vida

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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.

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Howard Seftel