Cafe Reviews

OODLES OF NOODLES

Page 2 of 3

Unlike Romano's, Tiramisu has a genuine family feel. Friendly family members greet, serve and cook. Unfortunately, homey charm does not always translate into gastronomic delight. It's a small, snug place, pretty in a simple, country way. Whitewashed walls lined with reproductions of Italian Renaissance art and young Sinatra piped in over the music system furnish the principal visual and audio diversions. The food aims for that Italian midrange between spaghetti and meatballs and risotto with truffles. Look for veal, chicken, seafood and pasta. But the price/value ratio here is out of whack. I couldn't help thinking that elsewhere you could spend less and do as well, or spend the same and do better. Take the bread. Tiramisu puts out a basket of ho-hum Italian bread to munch on. If you want some bruschetta, it will set you back $3.75 for four small, diced-tomato-laden slabs. At first-rate Italian places like Franco's and Nina L'Italiana, though, you don't have to pay extra for bread-nibbling thrills. At first glance, bocconcini con prosciutto looks like an appealing starter, air-dried Italian ham alongside fresh mozzarella brushed with olive oil and basil. But the night we ordered it, the cheese sat on tasteless winter tomatoes that shouldn't have left the kitchen. On the other hand, the single best item I sampled here is also an appetizer, caponatina. It's a scrumptious blend of eggplant, celery, olives, capers and onions that cuts off all table talk. Perhaps I'd pitched my expectations too high--the place is quite popular--but Tiramisu's main dishes never seemed to get airborne. A few are downright disappointing, and one should be permanently grounded. Costolette alla Milanese is the most satisfying entree. It's a classic northern Italian veal dish, a bone-in, breaded veal chop, fried to a golden, buttery sheen. Tiramisu's tender version is tasty enough, while simple hunks of broccoli and carrot provide some low-key accompaniment. No amount of mushrooms, olives, peppers and onions in the fragrant sauce could cover up the fundamental problem with the chicken cacciatora: a tough bird. The chewy chicken breast made this a hard dish to swallow. And no side of pasta or vegetables appeared to divert our attention. Pasta plates are substantial, but bulk isn't the defining element of pasta preparation. Fortunately, homemade cannelloni also has a winning flavor, aided by lots of ricotta and a light touch with the tomato sauce. The fettuccine al mascarpone, though, is rich and heavy enough to sink a battleship. A little of this mint-freshened platter goes a long way. Baked, ricotta-stuffed eggplant is a pleasing pasta alternative. The cioppino, one evening's special, was an overpriced, $19.50 misrepresentation. Our waiter sang its praises--heaps of shrimp, scallops, clams, lightly bathed in tomato, he crooned. Untraditionally, it's served over linguini, not in a broth-filled bowl. Like a culinary Jacques Cousteau, I made several exploratory dives into the noodle deep. I uncovered exactly one shrimp, no scallops, no clams, four mussels and enough indifferent calamari to feed Shamu until Valentine's Day. Scuttle this. My mood wasn't noticeably improved by dessert. Arizonans may be concerned about the spread of Africanized bees into our region. I'm more worried about the appearance of $4 cannoli, which used to breed only along the lower banks of the Hudson. It doesn't take professional expertise to recognize that Tiramisu, unlike Romano's Macaroni Grill, is a cozy family business. It looks right and feels right. I just wish it had food and prices to match.

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Howard Seftel