Cafe Reviews

Jan Session

Who goes to an airport to eat unless they have to? Apparently, more people than we realize. There's a national trend brewing of airports supplementing hot dogs with stuff we actually want, including a new Wolfgang Puck eatery at Chicago's O'Hare, Sylvia's Soul Food of Harlem at JFK International Airport, and the high-end Cibo at Philadelphia International. Since September, travelers at La Guardia even have been able to enjoy first-class cuisine at Figs, a New York outpost of noted Boston chef Todd English's Mediterranean cafe.

That wave hasn't hit Sky Harbor yet, but it has landed at the Scottsdale Municipal Airport. Three months ago brought us the opening of D'Atri's, courtesy of the Valley's own Channel 3 celebrity Jan D'Atri. In her newest incarnation, D'Atri continues to crank out the same delicious home-style Italian food that made her first restaurant -- Cinema Paradiso -- a success. The new D'Atri's is worth the trip to the airport, even if we're only dreaming of leaving town.

Most Valley residents know D'Atri as a longtime diva of Channel 3's PM Magazine show, and as current host of A Brighter Day. She's also an avid aviator, a passionate fly fisher, an accordion and piano player and a former Smitty's grocery store spokesperson. She markets her own line of Italian sausages and biscotti, too -- sausages made from her mother's recipe and said to be so good that Elvis used to have them flown in. During her free time, she manages to care for a mini-zoo of 14 abandoned and adopted creatures: a burro, mustang, pygmy goat, two Australian shepherds, eight birds and a cat. (Since New Times reported in 1999 that she was harboring a baby goat in Paradiso's kitchen, though, the animals now stay at home.)

When the owner of Scottsdale Airport's former restaurant, The Left Seat, died last year, D'Atri made a successful bid on the space. She closed Paradiso and turned it into a catering company and private party room.

So why didn't D'Atri choose Sky Harbor for her new enterprise? Her new location is an unlikely one, tucked inside the tiny Scottsdale terminal, next to the waiting room and the obligatory stacks of brochures touting Arizona's natural treasures -- the Grand Canyon, Jeep tours and Rainforest Cafe at Arizona Mills.

Can you say "Cessna Citation V Ultra"? There's no Southwest Airlines cattle call at the Scottsdale Airport. This place caters only to the wealthiest aviators and their passengers. People passing through this portal appreciate the finer things, and aren't reluctant to pay for them.

The location's actually a good fit, since if there was a stumble in D'Atri's previous eatery, it was in the price tag. Here, the high prices are repeated, yet given the new setting, they're more easily forgiven. While the original D'Atri's served consistently above-average meals, $12 luncheon pastas, $15 lasagna dinners and $3.50 cappuccinos compromised its "neighborhood cafe" countenance. This from a place so cozy-casual that one time I ate there, I found a baseball cap slung over the back of my chair, but was asked if I could please just leave it, because the regular patron who forgot it probably would soon return.

The new D'Atri's is a step up in decor, graduated from cafe to full-fledged restaurant -- maitre d', votive candles, white tablecloths and all. The menu has been expanded, with additions such as rack of lamb, shrimp and scallop skewers and filet mignon. While I still won't be paying $11.95 for a jumbo shrimp cocktail, $8.95 for a buffalo mozzarella and tomato salad or $14.95 for chicken and sausage chunks on a bed of Parmesan-and-butter-draped fettuccine, now the structure makes more sense. Because while Cessna owners subsidize the upscale setting, paying $21.95 for veal scallopine, the rest of us can take advantage of D'Atri's true specialties for a more reasonable price: panini sandwiches, pasta and sausage.

What an airport it is. Imagine pulling up to a parking space at the curb. Clusters of flowers bloom along the few steps up to the front doors. There's even a Texaco station behind a fence to the right, for convenient private-jet refueling. The next time I buy a Cessna, I'm stabling it here.

It would be easy to keep an eye on my flying machine, given D'Atri's floor-to-ceiling windows, separated from the tarmac only by a slender patio laced with decorative iron scrolls. Pleasant distractions include a flickering fireplace, comfortable booths, a centerpiece bar and cute ceramic airplanes placed on our table and stuffed with sugar packets. On some nights, the decor includes D'Atri, who has my dining companion melting with her accordion rendition of "Moonlight Sonata."

All my attention is focused on my entree-size pasta fagioli, however, a sultry soup of elbow macaroni, Northern white beans, pinto beans and sausage chunks. The broth has been flavored with ham hocks, sprinkled with fresh parsley and decorated with a few pieces of toasted bruschetta. Good, filling stuff for under six bucks.

The soup is a warming segue to another winner: D'Atri's signature garbage salad, a bed of romaine overstuffed with thin rounds of peppery sausage, splinters of chicken breast, Roma tomato, caramelized onion, celery, bowtie pasta, grilled green pepper, feta, provolone, Swiss and mozzarella tossed with olive oil and Parmesan. Antipasto salad is another meaty feast, packed with curls of provolone, cappicola, turkey, peppered salami, ham, pastrami, Swiss, mozzarella, grated Parmesan, chopped red pepper and romaine in creamy Italian dressing. At $8.50, these greens ain't cheap, but if evaluated on a protein-per-pound basis, they're a bargain.

A garbage pizza, meanwhile, is more restrained, topping puffy, wood-oven crust with kicky sausage, chicken breast, green pepper, mushrooms, white onion curls and just a little bit of sauce.

Panini -- served at breakfast and lunch -- are decadent deals, ringing in at $7.25 and under. Panini are an increasingly well-known version of grilled sandwiches -- think of a waffle press laid with vegetables, the veggies then taken with meat and cheese and stuffed between thick bread rounds, and stuck again on the grill to be pressed flat. D'Atri's serves up eight versions, including an excellent deli model stuffed with salami, ham, pastrami and mozzarella. Ham and Swiss is a step above ordinary, too, with meat that's been cut off a real ham, not that processed stuff, and paired with chopped, grilled green peppers, onion and mushrooms, plus a surprise appearance by cream cheese. And fresh-off-the-bird turkey breast elevates a basic sandwich to a delight, roasted and partnered with provolone, mozzarella, feta, mushrooms and caramelized onion.

D'Atri's sausage stars in several sandwiches, including a breakfast panini stuffed with eggs and cheese. It's also in a lunch panini that brings a thin patty with cream cheese and lots of heat-packing red pepper seeds. But the best of the bunch is the straightforward sausage sandwich, a hunger stomper showcasing the zesty meat with traditional peppers and onions.

The panini come with a choice of sides: garden, potato or pasta salad. Go for the potato salad, one of the finest versions of the simple spud dish to be found in the Valley. Chalk up the thrill to a creamy base that's rich with egg tones, and an extra kick of finely chopped black olive, celery, red pepper and fresh parsley. Pasta salad, on the other hand, is unreliable -- sometimes it's tangy, other times, the oil dressing is flat, lying listless on a bed of bowtie noodles tossed with chopped red pepper, celery, black olive, Parmesan and black pepper.

And when was the last time you had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich? It probably wasn't as good as this wonderfully sticky mess. Don't shy away from the $4.95 price -- there's value in the massive, triple-decker combo of thick white bread generously spread with chunky peanut butter and homemade apricot jam. Bonus: whole peanuts are mixed in for over-the-top crunch.

It's hard to go wrong with D'Atri's pasta -- anchored by homemade noodles and stunning sauces. Marinara, in particular, is such a symphony of acidic tomato it could make even the standard mystery meals served on commercial flights delicious. Spaghetti topped with two meatballs is quality comfort food, and a combo unites ricotta-stuffed ravioli; beef ravioli; very sweet, soft potato and spinach gnocchi; plus a dainty portion of sausage. Lasagna, too, is a happy blending of sausage and ricotta stuffing, the pasta sheets swimming under a lush meat sauce.

Desserts are worth every penny. A confetti pie, in fact, is an entire pie, almost like a lattice-crust potpie stuffed with fresh peach, apple, and blueberry. The jumbo portion is served with a side of vanilla bean ice cream drizzled with chocolate.

Let the terminal-locked travelers focus on the fancy entrees -- this is where the pricing makes me feel as if I'm financing D'Atri's personal jet. A spinach appetizer brings a pleasingly cheesy glop of fresh spinach and artichoke hearts in a small bread bowl, but there's hardly enough of the dip to command $9. Veal scallopine is outright boring, hued with a slightly burned aftertaste and sided with bland grilled baby carrots, zucchini and white rice. Parmigiano style, in this case, means nothing more than a drape of mozzarella dusted with paprika. And there are many other places to get okay wood-fired rosemary chicken or everyday grilled pork chops for less than $18.95.

There's turbulence to be worked out, as well. Some mistakes crop up on our old favorites, in a manner I'd never have expected at the former cafe. At Paradiso, chicken soup was stellar; here it shows up as a weak broth, floating with pimply poultry skin, fat rice, carrot, celery and just a few meager chads of meat. A burger is overcooked, and chips are burned to a crisp. Gone, too, is the charming takeout packaging -- instead of being hand-wrapped in butcher paper, sandwiches now slide around in Styrofoam boxes.

When we know what to order, the new D'Atri's is a high-flying experience. Thanks, Cessna owners, for supplementing our fuel bill.

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Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet