Cafe Reviews

Mediocre Mangia

One of the joys of writing a weekly column for New Times is that I'm pretty much given carte blanche to cut through the ca-ca that other news outlets lay on with a trowel. Take, for example, the current coverage of former president Ronald Reagan's demise: the tearful remembrances, the warm and fuzzy moments with Republican reptiles such as Edwin Meese, the nauseating suggestions that we put old prune-head on the dime or the ten-spot. What I wouldn't give for just one talking head to call a spade a spade and eulogize the Gipper for what he was -- the smiling, genial countenance of American wing-nuttery. I won't be holding my breath.

Some might argue that I also work for a corporate entity and am similarly circumscribed, but I disagree. The critics who toil for family-friendly dailies, as well as for many so-called indie mags, are bound and gagged. Or they have such a servile mentality that kissing ass is second nature. On the other hand, the reason a lot of folks pick up this pub is that we're not afraid to raise the Jolly Roger and fire the cannons when appropriate.

These thoughts occur to me after dining quite a few times at Sauce, the latest eatery from Fox Restaurant Concepts, the company responsible for Scottsdale's Bloom and North, as well as others in Tucson. I first visited this pizzeria/sandwich shop in the Madison Village Marketplace at Seventh Street and Glendale Avenue shortly after it opened in March, and generally found it to be so corporate and mediocre that I felt reviewing it would be like reviewing the opening of a Burger King. I didn't want to waste my time or yours, though Fox Restaurant Concepts had sent me so much literature on Sauce that you would have thought Emeril Lagasse was opening a spot in Copper Square. So I gave away the free pizza coupons they sent me to others, and forgot about the whole matter.

But then I happened upon a fawning review of Sauce by Mount Baldy, the chief critic of the morning rag here in town. Well, now that Sauce has the Arizona Republic's brown-nose seal of approval, the public deserves an alternate point of view -- one not so geared to please Baldy's mercantile masters.

The first thing that ticks me off about Sauce is the name, which would be more appropriate if the words "Almost No" appeared before it. I, for one, love tomato sauce on my pizza, so the moniker Sauce here implies that I should be cavorting with glee after consuming one of Sauce's pies. Sauce even goes so far as to put a little red splotch on the menu next to the pizzas that supposedly include some of that crimson purée. But I found Sauce's pizzas to be quite dry, with almost all of the tomato paste having evaporated or dissolved before it reached my plate. I did appreciate the thin crust of the pies I ate: the sausage with caramelized onion, and the pepperoni with crimini mushrooms. But both were so long on sodium and cheese that only the diversion of H2O from the Roosevelt Dam to my kisser would have cured the case of cottonmouth I caught from each.

Of course, sauce can also be slang for alcoholic beverages, and to its credit, Sauce the restaurant serves a number of wines by the glass at very reasonable prices of anywhere from $4 to $6. However, what's annoying is Sauce's use of highball glasses instead of stemware for serving vino. This is a self-conscious touch, with a dual purpose. Using the glassware equivalent of jelly jars is no doubt cheaper than stemware, and Sauce probably means to evoke the way pedestrian wine is drunk in Italy. I could buy the latter reason if, other than a picture of the Colosseum and the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the place had any Italian ambiance whatsoever. Instead, Sauce's interior -- with its square wooden tables, burnt-orange wall paint, and armless, sage-colored plastic chairs -- embodies the utilitarian aesthetic of the average American yuppie. Thus, what may have been intended to look charming only looks cheap.

For an ordinary Chianti, such mundane glassware may not affect the quality of the wine. But crikey, even the frickin' Olive Garden understands that stemware lends itself to appreciating anything more complex. Try it at home. Pour your favorite Pinot Noir into a juice glass. (Sauce fills its wine to the brim.) Then fill an average, stemmed red wine glass halfway with same. If you swirl the stemmed glass, and insert your proboscis in there, you'll get a nice whiff of the wine's "nose." Then taste each, and you should see that what you get from the stemmed glassware is superior. If I'm wrong (though I'm not), why doesn't Sauce just save a few pennies more and serve its fermented grape juice in Dixie cups?

As for the rest of Sauce's menu, I find little else to recommend. I tried a panini with prosciutto, salami, turkey and mozzarella, but found it pretty bland and unremarkable. I'm afraid I'm forever spoiled by Pane Bianco on Central when it comes to panini, and by comparison, Sauce's Eye-tie sandwiches are unusually ordinary. Sauce does much better with its salads, especially the vegetable salad topped with aged Parmesan, which includes a nice variety of finely chopped veggies, such as cherry tomatoes, corn, bits of carrot, onion, asparagus and cucumbers, all tossed in mixed greens with a mild, sparingly applied vinaigrette.

I'll say one thing for Sauce's beef lasagna: It's drenched in tomato sauce, but that doesn't seem to affect the curiously dehydrated interior, which is as parched as a pile of sawdust. I could do better just by buying some frozen lasagna at Fry's to microwave. Dessert-wise, eating Sauce's chocolate-topped cheesecake is as exciting as munching on a Milky Way. And Sauce's tiramisu is outdone by nearly every neighborhood Italian spot in the Valley. So if anyone ever mentions Sauce to me in a flattering light, you'll understand why I might be compelled to rudely reply, "Sauce? Hey, I've got some effin' sauce for you, buddy!"

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons