Cafe Reviews

Pasta, Present, and Future: Avanti in Central Phoenix Is One of the City's Remaining Classics

It's easy to wax nostalgic about shuttered restaurants, particularly in our town, and especially lately. We've recently lost the pleasures of a patty melt at Mary Coyle Ice Cream, the down-home charms of Bill Johnson's Big Apple, the steakhouse traditions of Pinnacle Peak Patio and Monti's La Casa Vieja, arguably our oldest local eatery.

There are other mainstays where one can eat steak or order the enchilada platter you've enjoyed each week since 1978. La Piñata, El Chorro, T. Cook's, Red Devil, The Sugar Bowl, Pete's Fish and Chips, and Duck and Decanter all prevail. The Spaghetti Factory isn't going anywhere, nor is Scottsdale's Los Olivos or Central Avenue's Macayo's. Rustler's Rooste remains a trustworthy tourist attraction, and downtown's Gourmet House of Hong Kong carries on serving duck feet and sea bras to a loyal following.

While it's always sad to see an old favorite close up shop, it's not always true that we've lost more than tradition when a sentimental favorite gives up the ghost. When I think of longstanding pet restaurants that also offer better cuisine, I think of the venerable Durant's, which celebrated its 65th birthday this year, or the nearly-30-year-old Christo's on Seventh Street. Or my personal favorite, Avanti, which I love for its dependable food and its earnest retro vibe.

The charming brainchild of Benito Mellino of Sorrento and Tuscan restaurateur Angelo Livi, Avanti (Italian for "forward") threw open its doors in 1974, back when this was pretty much the only place in town where one might find octopus and escargot on a menu. The partners, who'd met in Bermuda in 1967 and later opened a pair of Italian restaurants in Barcelona, landed in the Valley in the early '70s to find a lot of steakhouses and Mexican buffets. They bought an old furniture storeroom at 27th Street and Thomas, did a quick renovation, and gave us fine dining, Italian-style. The amici were the first in Phoenix to offer tiramisu, the story goes, and in 1974 had to explain to customers what it was, besides.

Local cuisine and our knowledge of Italian desserts have grown over the past 40 years, thanks in part to Avanti, whose chefs I remember as regulars on Open House with Rita Davenport, a local precursor to the Martha Stewart DIY craze. The restaurant's interior has the same ambience as some of the better Italian fine-dining joints I know well in northeastern Ohio, with owner Livi stopping by to chat me up about what I ordered and to scold my waiter for not bringing me my bread, even when he had. Avanti's interior screams "Guido!" but in a nice way. Its black-and-white décor is offset with mirrored and blood red walls and dead-serious zebra-striped fabrics, none of which ever spoils my appetite for a night of signature Italian dishes.

On a recent visit, escargots de Bourgogne was classically prepared in garlic butter spiked with brandy wine and served sans shells in the traditional ceramic dish. The snails were on the small side, but I was surprised to find two of them, tender and tasty and sizzling hot, in each pool of butter. An accompanying basket of garlic bread was perfect for sopping up the delicious garlic-infused sauce.

An order of stuffed shrimp offered a pair of prawn into which crab meat, scallops, spinach, and mozzarella had been wedged. These were drizzled in a zippy brandy sauce and just enough bread crumbs to hold the stuffing together; tender, salty crab is the main attraction in this dish, which is generous enough to be a shared appetizer.

Avanti's Caesar salad is perhaps a bit overdressed with creamy anchovy-based dressing, but it offers a good black pepper kick and a properly chilled plate piled high with shiny romaine leaves. Perhaps the line cook slipped while dusting my salad with Parmesan, accidentally burying mine in nearly a half-cup of cheese.

I was raised on pasta e fagioli, and have never understood its appeal. There's a version of this peasant-food dish for just about every region and household in Italy, from cream-based ones jammed with vegetables to soupy versions made only with white beans and pasta. Avanti's is somewhere between, and owes its greatness to flavorful beans and plenty of aromatics.

An order of linguine carbonara called to me from the pasta menu, and in spite of my fears, I ordered it. I rarely find this simple Roman dish of spaghetti, eggs, and cheese properly prepared; always there's some unnecessary tweak made, like substituting bacon for pancetta or, on one unfortunate and memorable occasion, chopped hardboiled eggs in place of the traditional egg yolk, onions, and baby green peas. Avanti chef Luis De'Orta got it right, with a technique that binds together all the magic of an unfussy and delicious pasta.

De'Orta offers a risotto of the day, and last Friday night it was made with mushrooms and enough butter to choke a mule. Cooked in a wine and chicken stock, it was creamy and delicious, chockablock with creminis and porcinis. This one passed the second-day test. I took half of it home, microwaved it for lunch, and found it even tastier. The chicken parmigiani was less exciting. Alongside a ho-hum pile of spaghetti marinara, it offered a perfectly serviceable breaded and fried breast, slightly dry and draped in melted mozzarella.

My dining companion and I moved, bursting with pasta and determination, toward the tiramisu. I resisted the urge to ask what it was, just to be funny, and was glad I hadn't when our friendly waiter announced that, given our jolly dispositions about all we'd consumed, the dessert was on the house. It was sweet and dark and full of good taste, just like Avanti, one of my favorite old dinnertime haunts.

2728 East Thomas Road
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 0x000A5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday; 0x000A5 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Saturday

Pasta e fagioli $7.50
Escargots $11.50
Linguine carbonara $19.50
Tiramisu $7.50

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela