Cafe Reviews


Nina L'Italiana Ristorante, 3625 East Bell Road, Phoenix, 482-6167. Hours: Dinner, Tuesday through Sunday, 5 to 10 p.m. (Reopens Friday, September 3.)

Several years ago, I caught a double bill featuring two flicks just at the end of their runs.

The first movie was The Morning After, a Jane Fonda showcase about a boozy wench who wakes up in alcoholic stupor next to a murdered man. Reasonably diverting, it managed to take my mind off whatever I went to the movies to escape for several of its 103 minutes.

Of course, that's all Hollywood star vehicles aim to do. Ten minutes after the credits rolled, I couldn't even remember whodunit.

The second film, David Lynch's Blue Velvet, was infinitely more mesmerizing. It was a weird, original, well-crafted piece of filmmaking, and I couldn't stop thinking about it.

Most restaurants are like The Morning After. They generally satisfy the urge that brought you there, but then quickly fade from consciousness.

But some restaurants are so memorable that, like Blue Velvet, they keep wandering unsummoned into your thoughts. Nina L'Italiana is one of those places.

It's an unpretentious spot, tucked away in an unpretentious Bell Road shopping strip. The nonsmoking area has an outdoor-patio feel: The latticework overhead is twined with greenery; in the rear, a stone fountain gurgles peacefully; and tiny baskets with sprigs of eucalyptus brighten up the tables. Piped-in music of the 1001 Strings variety provides an unnecessary distraction.

Nina's daily rotating menu of northern Italian fare doesn't rely on unusually creative dishes or exotic foreign touches for its appeal. The formula for success is so obvious it's a wonder most restaurants still don't get it: fresh, high-quality ingredients, expertly prepared.

You can spot the commitment to quality right off, in the basket of just-cooked-up garlic bread, accompanied by grated Parmesan cheese that never saw the inside of a Kraft can.

Appetizers are a treat. Don't be scared off by the $8.95 tag on the platter of mussels. This may be the best mussel dish I've had in the Western hemisphere: ten tender bivalve mollusks, floating in an absolutely divine, light tomato sauce infused with olive oil, garlic and onions. It smells like the Mediterranean on a breezy summer afternoon.

Three homemade ravioli bursting with four cheeses in a rich cream sauce displayed Nina's deft pasta touch. The antipasto for two is a lighter way to edge into dinner. The mouth-watering, thin-sliced meats--prosciutto, mortadella, ham, hard salami--don't taste at all like their namesakes in the supermarket deli section. A bit of fresh mozzarella on tomato drizzled with olive oil and basil, some roasted peppers and olives round out the platter.

The house salad that precedes dinner, sprinkled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, could have benefited from some of that flair. Sandwiched between hard-hitting appetizers and main dishes, the mixed greens and olives seemed a bit anemic. A few mushrooms, artichoke hearts and peppers could have made this course more than the time-filler it was.

You don't have to turn your head to see if the main dishes are coming. Just take a sniff to determine if the heady scent of garlic is getting stronger.

Diners who have never sampled first-rate, fresh pasta might be surprised to discover just how much an improvement it is over dry, packaged versions. Nina L'Italiana's pasta entrees are riveting.

Farfalle al pesto is a deceptively simple dish. But if it's so easy to make, ask yourself why you've never had it this good.

It features a hefty portion of thick, bow-tie pasta with an exceptionally pleasing texture. Small bits of diced potato and broccoli give it some color and crunch. A dreamy pesto sauce tops it off.

Fettuccine mare e monti combines a plateful of noodles with six good-sized shrimp and a ladleful of fragrant wild mushrooms. It's smoothed over with a carefully prepared, light cream sauce that doesn't overpower the pleasing blend of flavors.

Salmon lovers might want to telephone to find out if the evening's menu offers salmone al cartoccio. Nina wraps a large hunk of salmon in foil and cooks it in a stunning white-wine sauce freshened with lemon, tomato, olives, capers and artichoke slivers. When the server opens the foil tableside, it's hard to decide whether to attack the gloriously moist salmon or to keep inhaling the steamy, aromatic sauce fumes.

The linguini side dish shows the beauty of simplicity. Seasoned with just olive oil and garlic, it's the perfect accompaniment.

Chicken tarragon is another good option. A hearty slab of boneless, white-meat breast comes lined with mushrooms and artichoke hearts. It's all nestled in a heavily scented cream sauce that will make you think you're dining in a tarragon patch. Penne al pomodoro--quill-shaped pasta in a delicate tomato sauce--gets high marks in a supporting role. Desserts are good, but not as awesome as the preceding fare. Tiramisu and a gateau St. Honor end the meal with a light, caloric touch.

Nina L'Italiana does it right in more than just the food department. Though unaware of my identity, the staff remembered my face on a second visit, welcoming me back as a repeat customer. At the end of the meal, the waiter brought over a flaming glass of Sambuca, an Italian liqueur. "On the house," he said, three words that in my estimation match "I love you" in thrilling intensity.

In the Valley's fiercely competitive Italian-restaurant league, Nina L'Italiana looks like a sure bet to make the playoffs.

Livia's, 4221 North Seventh Avenue, Phoenix, 266-7144. Hours: Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.; Sunday, 5 to 9 p.m.

Livia's, a central Phoenix mainstay for decades, recently changed hands. The new owners are aiming high, looking to make it a contender, but they still need to work out a few glitches.

The front door is one of them. It's so unprepossessing that no one in our party spotted it the first time we drove past. And it looks so uninviting that even after we tracked it down, no one seemed terribly eager to walk through it.

Inside, though, Livia's L-shaped room oozes classic, comforting, Italian-restaurant charm. Just inside the front doorway is a big painting of Pan, serenading a languid nude. Brick archways and hanging Chianti bottles try to assure customers that the fare will be just as classic and comforting.

At $12, the antipasto-and-bruschetta platter doesn't give diners too much bang for the buck. Instead of getting a tray full of assorted meats, lovers of animal protein have to make do with a bit of pancetta. Herbivores will enjoy small helpings of roasted peppers, marinated eggplant, mushrooms and radicchio, as well as some wonderful, sharp provolone. If you're trying to beat down hunger pangs, be prepared to fill up on bread.

Mussels marinara is a more substantial starter, a dozen or so soft mussels in a strong, heavily seasoned tomato sauce. Main dishes come with soup or salad, neither of which is particularly memorable. The chicken broth, dotted with ground chicken and thick noodles, was salty enough to be canned by the Campbell soup company. We tried perking up the undistinguished salad with some grated Parmesan, which in its authentic state is one of the world's great treats. But Livia's cheese seemed no more native to Italy's Emilia-Romagna region than I am.

The daily entree specials are thoughtfully written up on a chalkboard, including description and price. It's a more civilized alternative to listening to a waiter run through dishes in only slightly less time than Act II of Aida.

We went for two of them. The imaginative lasagna far outshone anything else we sampled. Instead of thick blankets of wide noodles layered with heaps of meat, cheese and tomato sauce, Livia's version featured thin sheets of rolled-up pasta. Inside rested a delightful mix of ground veal and chicken, roasted peppers and Gorgonzola. I only wish there had been a bit more of it.

The scallop-and-linguini special didn't inspire nearly the same passion. This time there was no shortage of chow--plenty of tender little scallops and a plateful of pasta. But the scallops were swamped with heavy-handed amounts of dry, overseasoned breadcrumbs. The briny scallop flavor could barely peek through.

The regular menu reads like a "greatest hits" list of Italian dishes. Scaloppine alla Valdostana traditionally combines fontina cheese with breaded and fried veal, but Livia's opts for Parmesan and pancetta. The high-quality veal just about assured that any combination would work.

"Livia's Delight" looked enough out of the ordinary to tempt us. It offered "three huge shrimp" wrapped in bacon, stuffed with spinach and mozzarella, topped with artichoke hearts.

While the shrimp were big enough and wrapped as advertised, a four-man scavenger hunt couldn't reveal a trace of spinach and mozzarella stuffing, or anything genetically related to an artichoke heart. Does the chef know what the menu is promising? Desserts continued the hit-and-miss theme. Raspberry cheesecake in a graham-cracker crust was swiftly consumed. But the cannoli, with its thin cream filling and flaccid pastry crust, should never have gotten past immigration.

This place is trying hard to carve a niche between mom-and-pop pasta joints and ritzy, northern Italian gourmet palaces. By staying open til 2 a.m. on weekends, it's also trying to position itself as a late-night spot. The trick now is to actually fill these niches, not simply occupy them.

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Howard Seftel