It may be hard for Generation Xers to believe, but life in America once had a certain routine predictability. Workers would count on staying with the same company for 30 years, the Boston Celtics would win every NBA championship and Richard Nixon would charge that his opponents were "soft on communism." And when Americans of that era went out for a reliably predictable Saturday-night meal, they'd often find themselves eating dishes vaguely billed as "Italian-continental." The specialties might be Long Island duck in brandy sauce, steak topped with green peppercorns or shrimp scampi--dishes just "Italian" and "continental" enough to dazzle our provincial tastes. In those days, too, society wasn't nearly as tribalized, compartmentalized and fragmented as it is now. Neither were restaurant menus. (Remember when an offer to go out for Chinese food wasn't met with "Hunan, Szechuan or Cantonese"?) Nor had restaurants yet developed the fetish for microauthenticity, which also has encouraged the trend toward culinary Balkanization.
Look, for instance, at what's happened to Italian fare. Once upon a time, just knowing there existed a distinction between northern and southern cuisine marked you as a gastronomic sophisticate. Now, such crude knowledge is only a starting point for the modern, all-knowing palate. Today, people ask if their dish has roots in Tuscany, Sicily or Lombardy. (Don't snicker: One of New York's hottest restaurants, as well as a best-selling cookbook, features the bounty of just the Emilia-Romagna region.) By all rights, the old-time, Italian-continental restaurant meal ought to be extinct. The food's got all the fashionable pizzazz of a Davy Crockett coonskin cap. Nowadays, even the budget, Italian-themed chains, which aim right at McMiddle America, offer focaccia, chicken Florentine and tiramisu. The Italian-continental experience simply seems out of step with today's dining-out market. It's not particularly cheap, it's not particularly ethnic and, to all appearances, it's not particularly interesting.
Fortunately, nobody's bothered to tell Avanti and Christo's. Throwbacks to another era, both thrive by delivering generally outstanding versions of tried-and-true favorites.
Now in its 20th year, Avanti has a look and feel that will inspire nostalgia for the old days, even if you're not old enough to remember them. Back in the 70s, the swanky, mirrored, black and chrome, art-deco interior must have surely oozed elegance. So, too, I'm sure, did the ultrasmooth staff of tuxedoed waiters, the vintage Sinatra tunes spilling over the music system and even the signed celebrity posters lining the hallway to the rest rooms. In the 90s, they carry a certain dated charm.
So does the food. The operators clearly haven't spent the last two decades reconceptualizing the art of Italian gastronomy. So what? Instead, playing to their strength, they have focused on fine-tuning the quality of the standard Italian-continental repertoire.
Appetizers like oysters Rockefeller won't raise any eyebrows with their novelty. But as you might expect, Avanti bakes and serves them in the appropriate kitchenware, a vessel with half-a-dozen indentations to hold the shells. Forty years ago, this starter probably would have seemed classy; today, it's so retro it's almost stylish. But while you can quibble about chic, you can't argue about the first-rate preparation.
You can't fault the fresh mussels in a creamy mariniere sauce, either. They're luscious, delicately scented with shallots, white wine and cream. But the homemade pasta appetizers inspired my greatest enthusiasm. The kitchen turns out divine gnocchi, dumplings so ethereal I was surprised they didn't float right off the plate. And the mouth-watering spinach ravioli kept pace. The house salad that followed functioned principally as a time-killer between appetizer and entree, a convenient point to renew conversation broken off by the first course. Whatever you talk about, it probably won't be this lackluster plate of greens. But when the kitchen trots out the main dishes, conversation is going to falter, except for the "Mmmms" that will involuntarily spring up. The hefty veal chop is an uncomplicated delight, thick, juicy and perfectly grilled. It's burnished with a rich mushroom sauce that practically begs to be nudged up against a bit of pasta. Instead, you'll have to use it to perk up a tame vegetable medley. Created in San Francisco, cioppino is a quintessential Italian-continental dish. Avanti's version is outstanding, one of the best I've had in the Valley.
That's because the chef knows the importance of the tomato broth, which steams with a fragrant scent. It also doesn't hurt that the huge bowl is laden with generous portions of shrimp, scallops, clams, mussels, fish and calamari. I didn't expect much from scampi Pistulin--just another expensive shrimp dish, I imagined. I was wrong. In the first place, Avanti uses gorgeous, meaty shrimp, the kind that turned America into a nation of shrimp lovers about 50 years ago. Then, it drapes five of these beauties in a velvety, brandy-tinged garlic-butter sauce. Cutting edge? Hardly, but very effective.
Same for the filet mignon. Avanti gooses up some butter-soft medallions with a brandy-and-green-peppercorn cream sauce that almost forces you to close your eyes and smack your lips while you chew. At dessert time, stick to those fashioned in-house. Like everything else here, there's nothing remotely original about them. But they're extremely well-crafted. The cräme br–l‚e is classic, a rich, custardy treat. The light tiramisu packs a flavorful coffee punch. And the strawberries soaked in triple sec and topped with chantilly were so delightful that the next day I made a bucketful of my own at home. Give Avanti credit for refusing to keep up with the times. This kitchen understands that change is not necessarily progress.
Christo's, 6327 North Seventh Street, Phoenix, 264-1784. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.
For the first few moments after we entered Christo's, I got the odd sensation that we had wandered into the restaurant version of "Cheers"--a place where everybody knows your name. The proprietors, the waiters and Mike the bartender seemed to greet everyone who walked in the door like longtime patrons. They probably were. This is the kind of dining-out experience that will generate repeat business. Almost ten years old, Christo's vibrates with that special feel that every restaurant yearns for--genuine neighborhood warmth. You can't attribute much of the glow to the nondescript room. One side of the long room overlooks the strip-mall parking lot. Other visual highlights are mirrors, framed posters of people in self-conscious art-deco poses and strategically perched flower arrangements. It's the affable service and comfy Italian-continental food that inspire the loyal crowd of customers. A plate of cannelloni shared as an appetizer provided the first evidence of the kitchen's skill. Two delicate pasta tubes come fragrantly stuffed with meat, spinach and almonds, drizzled with a superb cream sauce that highlighted every bite. If you're used to rubbery cannelloni swamped under a bucket of tomato sauce, Christo's version will be a real eye-opener. Not everybody loves mussels the way I do--a couple of my companions initially wanted no part of them. But even they were singing a different tune after I forced them to sample the tender critters soaked in a lightly scented cream wine sauce. The $5.95 tag for the 18 mussels furnished an additional reason to smile. And the saut‚ed scallops Parisienne, garnished with mushrooms and almonds, are an equally seaworthy starter. Don't be lulled into downing the routine soup and salad that accompany dinner, just because they're set down in front of you. Instead, keep your appetite on edge for the main dishes. They're about as predictable as a Phoenix weather forecast in June. The regular menu lists five varieties of chicken breast (parmigiana, Florentine); six kinds of veal (piccata, Marsala); and three kinds of shrimp (Fra Diavalo, scampi). The nightly specials, however, are a lot more energetic. The osso buco is a particular standout--a superbly meaty and tender braised veal shank dripping with juices. The unadorned fettuccine alongside makes the perfect vehicle for sopping them up. There's no question that the osso buco is Christo's signature dish.
The kitchen does a wonderful job with Chilean sea bass, too. It's grilled to a flaky, shimmering translucence, and coated with a light marinara sauce that doesn't overpower the delicate fish flavor. Someone in this kitchen knows fish. Duck in a brandy-and-green-peppercorn sauce isn't very hip, but the model here is solidly fashioned. The skin is crisped, and the generously sized bird is remarkably ungreasy.
Chicken Bolognese, though, didn't match the zest of the other platters. A skimpy breast comes draped with ham and cheese, moistened with an undistinguished, Marsala-tinged sauce. This is the kind of Italian-continental dish that would definitely benefit from some updating. Desserts are the one part of the meal that could use some picking up. Our waiter said that the cräme caramel was the only homemade sweet, and it didn't seem worth the effort. The supplier's chocolate cake also couldn't keep up with the meal's other high notes. And a word about espresso. Those prepackaged pods of ground espresso that Christo uses are no doubt a great convenience for restaurant owners, and a money saver, as well. But they don't have that fresh-ground taste. And at the rate they're infiltrating restaurants, pretty soon diners are going to forget what real espresso tastes like. I'll happily pay the extra two bits for the genuine article. Please cut corners someplace else.