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Italian Nice

I grew up in a condiment-free household. It's sad, but true. Our house was in a salad-dressing-free zone. Sauces were used only if they were imperative to the construction of a dish, and even then, sometimes not. Mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup, barbecue sauce or salsa on our food? Never. Even spices...
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I grew up in a condiment-free household. It's sad, but true. Our house was in a salad-dressing-free zone. Sauces were used only if they were imperative to the construction of a dish, and even then, sometimes not. Mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup, barbecue sauce or salsa on our food? Never. Even spices were banned; any family member caught sneaking onion, garlic or anything stronger than Bob's Seasoning Salt was ostracized.

I don't know why this was. We never discussed it. It was just one of those quiet shames we kept hidden from the neighbors.

I was 15 before I was brave enough to add ranch dressing to my lettuce. Soon I became a monster. I topped burgers with Heinz, turkey sandwiches with Hellmann's, hot dogs with Dijon, steak with Worcestershire. Sometimes I even used pickles.

One day, I broke loose completely and ordered Mexican food. I still remember it fondly: my first beef burrito (just shredded; I wasn't quite ready for green or red chiles yet), glistening under a mantle of enchilada sauce, swimming with sour cream, guacamole and salsa. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and dove in. God, it was good.

I'm proud to say that today, my family embraces condiments of all kinds and actually seeks out gutsy spicing. Like my blossoming, it happened suddenly for them, too. We still don't discuss it, but recently, I was shocked to discover that my mother has a half-dozen types of salt in her pantry. Salt!

Yet I have to admit, when I first opened her cupboard and found her secret spice stash, I felt like something had been lost. Even if it was for the better, my life had changed.

Perhaps that's why I feel so content at Ninetta's Trattoria, a cozy, family-run restaurant just north of Moon Valley. The menu is uncontrived, the presentation is uncomplicated and there's little use of assertive seasoning. It harks back to my childhood, which, despite the bland flavoring, was a very happy time.

Simple goodness is his goal, acknowledges owner Alessandro Raffi as he stops by our table to check on us one evening. Earlier in his cooking career, he tells us in his stilted English, he ran two high-end Italian restaurants in Germany featuring tableside preparation of some two dozen intricate dishes. When he and his wife opened Ninetta's a little more than a year ago, however, they decided to concentrate on traditional, comfortable meals from their native Tuscany. She does the cooking, he runs the business and their nephew waits on the tables.

If you're looking for risotto with wild mushroom ragout and truffle oil, go to La Locanda. If you're looking for chicken Parmigiana or spaghetti and meatballs, go to the Olive Garden. But if you seek honest, tasty spaghetti alle vongole (clams, parsley, garlic and white wine) or genuine trenette al pesto (basil, olive oil, pine nuts, garlic, Pecorino and Parmesan cheeses), Ninetta's will do you proud. Best of all, there's nothing priced more than $13.50.

Sure, not everything on the menu works, but if you stick to Ninetta's specialty -- pasta -- you're bound to leave satisfied.

The first thing that doesn't work is the seating -- achingly straight-backed chairs with harsh woven-reed mats. Ouch. Good thing the mint-colored walls and linen tab-top drapes are so soothing, splashed with copper sconces and a few wall-mounted dry pasta displays. Elevator-style piano music in the background calms, too, particularly when Raffi bursts into impromptu Italian opera.

The first thing that does work, though, is the water service. We live in the middle of the desert, but how often do I have to plead for a meager glass of H2O in so many restaurants? Raffi brings us an entire iced pitcher, even topping it off midway through our meals. For that alone, I like Ninetta's.

Bread is also better than it needs to be at such a small place. It's homemade Tuscan style, sourdough-toned with a great thick crust. But why is margarine served alongside, when real dairy butter is easy elegance?

In a return to the familiar Italian menus I grew up with, many dishes come with insalatina, a basic toss of romaine, tomato, sliced raw onion (gack) and shredded carrot in a light vinaigrette. It's okay when it's free, and even with the salad's à la carte price of just $1.50, but the dressing would benefit from higher seasoning, and if Raffi ever decided to use his leftover bread for croutons, the mix would be worth perhaps twice as much.

Fill up on the freebies. Appetizers aren't a focus at Ninetta's, with the only choices other than the tossed salad being an unremarkable insalata julien (greens boosted with tomato, hard-boiled egg, ham, cheese and olives); pasta e fagioli or minestrone ala genovese. By all means, order the pasta e fagioli. I could make a lunch of this hefty soup. This is hearty stuff, served blistering hot in an oversize bowl, and it's got all the right components: delicate tube noodles, tender whole beans, celery, tiny bits of carrot and parsley in a thick-bodied savory purée.

For further starters, we experiment with the regular menu. At lunch one day, my dining companion and I split a "cold plate" entree (it's a poor name for a dish, but to Ninetta's credit, our server plays with us, asking us if we'd like mittens on the side). What we get is two soft slices of very average mozzarella dusted with oregano, plus quartets of thin shaved prosciutto and salami served with insalatina. It's only five bucks, but even as just a nibble, don't bother.

Much, much, much more pleasant is a split order of penne alla puttanesca (dinner only). We request the entree "plopped in the middle of the table so we can both pick at it," but receive two generous plated portions. How nice, and how do they do it at just $8.50? Legend says puttanesca is a derivation of puttana (Italian for "whore") because of the sauce's intense siren call. Whatever. I just know I really like this zesty mélange of tomatoes, onions, bountiful capers, black olives, anchovies, oregano and garlic dusted with Pecorino and Parmesan cheeses.

Ninetta's doesn't do specials, either. The only off-menu offering is homemade gnocchi served on Wednesdays. These little potato dumplings are a yummy way to break up the week -- the enormous bowl of soft, pasty nuggets has my dining companion cooing happy sounds. She can't decide between Roberta sauce (tomato, light cream, Parmesan and pesto) or "hearty meat sauce," and asks for a half-and-half dish. Yet Ninetta's can't oblige, our server tells us, because each sauce is made fresh upon ordering, and his aunt will yell at him if he asks. So it's a joyful surprise when my companion receives her Roberta gnocchi, alongside a full portion of meat sauce at -- get this -- no charge. Wow. This in a time when even Arby's charges 40 cents extra for a side of watery au jus.

Ninetta's à la minute cooking means that food comes as it's ready -- my companions are halfway through their meals before mine arrives. We catch on quickly, and by the next visit, I've decreed that dining here will be family style. Entrees are deposited in the center of our table to share, and Raffi, observing our scheme, scampers over with extra plates.

The to-order preparation also means that Ninetta's pasta is almost always perfectly al dente, always hot, and marvelously fresh. Ravioli bolognese is fabulous, a leftovers-guaranteed portion of tender pasta pockets stuffed with finely ground beef and delicate spices. Hearty, chunky meat sauce is perfectly balanced and so delightful that we eat it straight, dunking hefty forkfuls from the side serving that came with my companion's gnocchi. I'm also smitten with linguini profumo di bosco, studded with Tuscany's signature porcini mushrooms, fresh tomato, garlic and lots of fresh Parmesan.

Portions are so large, even at lunch, that when the cannelloni Firenze arrives, my companion, who knows my appreciation of carryout boxes, chirps, "More leftovers! Bonus points!" It's difficult not to finish every bite in one sitting, though, as tasty as the two burrito-size cannelloni are. While I prefer a lighter presentation than the thick filling and ocean of white sauce served here, to find fault would be like saying Ninetta's is giving too much of a good thing. Finely ground beef is blended with the tiniest hint of tomato and Parmesan, covered in buckets of creamy béchamel sauce and baked just so.

The rich milk and butter-flour roux is too heavy for the lasagna Verdi, though, suffocating the delicate spinach pasta. It doesn't help that the noodles are overcooked, struggling as a mushy cloak to the ricotta filling and meat sauce.

Ninetta's doesn't dedicate much menu space to non-pasta dishes, and for good reason. The chicken, pork, veal, shrimp and osso buco served here can be found -- and better prepared -- almost anywhere. Veal scaloppine is three pounded-to-paper-thin cutlets draped with whispers of prosciutto and whole leaf sage in a flat white wine sauce. The best element is the side of penne napoletana (dressed with a smooth, mild tomato sauce).

Petti di pollo alla valdostana bores me, too, promising two full chicken breasts, but delivering, as my companion puts it, just an "A" cup. The bird is dry under a salty coverlet of ham and mozzarella. Osso buco doesn't do it for me, either. Although it's competently braised to tenderness, it's too quiet under its sauce of olive oil, tomato and carrots. The veal shank comes on a huge plate but is anchored mostly by a huge bone (more leftovers for the dog).

And perhaps I've been spoiled by the many excellent tiramisu variations served around town, but I set down my fork after just a few bites of this too-heavy sponge cake that tastes like little else than its dusting of unsweetened cocoa.

No, I'd rather save my three bucks and order another glass of wine instead. That's no typo: Ninetta's indeed prices its Pinot Grigio, Chianti, Merlot and white Zinfandel at this rock-bottom sum. The Placido brands are bargain-bin table wines, but still decent, served in little water glasses filled all the way to the top.

Good bread, great pasta and a nice wine, all at an unbelievably low price -- it's a simple mix that makes me one happy camper. I'll be back to Ninetta's, and maybe I'll even bring my mother.Ninetta's Trattoria, 814 East Union Hills Drive, Phoenix, 623-434-8967. Hours: Lunch, Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, Tuesday through Thursday, 5 to 9 p.m., Friday, 5 to 10 p.m., Saturday, 4 to 10 p.m., Sunday 4 to 9 p.m.

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