Cafe Reviews

Leave It to Bistro

Convivo, 7000 North 16th Street, Phoenix, 997-7676. Hours: Dinner, Tuesday through Saturday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.

Some restaurants make me want to throw in my napkin and look for another line of work.

No, it's not the lousy places that inspire fantasies of a career change. Bad restaurants actually stir up my blood. They fill me with righteous indignation, and the same kind of I'll-get-them prosecutorial zeal that riled Kenneth Starr. When I eat awful, overpriced food, I don't want to lay down my fork and knife: I want to put on my cape, expose the wrongdoers and bring the perpetrators to justice.

It's the really wonderful restaurants that depress me. That's because in the love-'em-and-leave-'em world of reviewing, I know that after a magical dining-out fling, I'll be forced to move on. Imagine, for a moment, that Clint Eastwood had fallen in love with a restaurant, and not Meryl Streep, in Madison County. Now you can appreciate the poignancy of my situation. You could call my story The Restaurants of Maricopa County.

It's a heartbreaking tale. In my case, the Cheers theme song mocks me with cruel irony: If I'm doing my job right, nobody knows my name. I can't become a regular anywhere. I wander from restaurant to restaurant, a man with 52 first dates every year. And on those few occasions when I do find a place I'd like to settle down with, I'm unable to sustain the relationship and make a lasting commitment.

These morose musings struck me with particular force after three captivating evenings at Convivo, a terrific new restaurant with a vaguely Italian name and contemporary seasonal American fare. I could feel the chemistry, the connection between us: This is the kind of spot, I thought, a critic could happily spend his own money in.

Convivo and I, though, have no future. No matter how much I'm attracted to it, I always have to eat elsewhere. So I won't call. I won't be stopping in anytime soon. All I'll have is memories. But if you're smart, you won't wait until the end of this review to make a reservation and start creating memories of your own.

Initially, the thought of coming here filled me with dread. That's because I knew I'd be recognized by the wife part of Convivo's husband-and-wife team. (She used to work at Sportsman's, where I was a customer before I became New Times' restaurant reviewer.) I keep the kind of low profile that Mafia informants in the Witness Protection Program aspire to. While I'm not worried about getting whacked, I am concerned about preserving my anonymity, because my credibility depends on it. And for more than seven years, I've done everything I could to stay off restaurants' radar screens.

I know what can happen when restaurants learn a reviewer is in the house. (See this week's Second Helpings on page 93 to find out what kind of treatment a local critic got after she was spotted.) So, did my table get an extra measure of attention? No doubt Convivo's proprietors were tempted--they'd be candidates for sainthood if they weren't. But even if it tries to impress a critic who shows up unannounced, no restaurant can conjure up at will a grown-up setting, quality ingredients, an imaginative menu that changes weekly, a well-thought-out wine list and reasonable prices. This place has so much going for it that any special handling we may have received was probably unnecessary.

If Convivo did try to go out of its way to impress me, it initially chose an odd way to go about it. On our first visit, we were seated in the front left corner of the room. In that spot, the chemical fumes seeping in from the next-door beauty salon were so overpowering we had to change tables. (The problem was apparently fixed, since on subsequent visits the odor was gone.)

The place is small and sparely furnished. Set in a shopping strip storefront, Convivo, like too many local restaurants, looks out into a parking lot. ("The bustling urban scene," said our server with an ironic smile, as headlights flooded the room.) Four soothing abstract paintings line one wall, while copper pans hang from another. You can watch the occasional spurt of flame shoot from the open kitchen, which fills the back corner of the room. The tables are set with heavy linen and fresh flowers in a vase. Unobtrusive light jazz provides aural background.

The human decor is more striking. Convivo isn't "hot" in the traditional restaurant sense. It certainly isn't attracting the good-time trendoids--you won't see any guys here with ponytails and cell phones, or their fashionably dressed girlfriends. But after just a few months, it's already drawing a crowd of grown-ups, sophisticated diners savvy enough to recognize a restaurant jewel when they see it.

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Howard Seftel