Restaurant Week 2011: Spasso Pizza & Mozzarella Bar

Ever since celeb chef Mario Batali opened his Osteria Mozza in LA, the international trend of mozzarella bars has been slowly spreading across America. Other notable mozz bars include New York's Obikà (which originated in Rome) and Naples Tomato in Florida.  

Spasso Pizza & Mozzarella Bar in the old Pie Zanos space at Town & Country plaza is Phoenix's latest stab at the mozzarella bar concept.

This is nothing like the chic, modern, sushi-inspired ObikÃ. There's no physical cheese bar, but instead a menu of three housemade cheeses. 

Spasso's interior is designed to replicate the kind of cozy sidewalk cafe you'd find in Paris or Rome, complete with painted storefronts and a small, lighted tree. Unfortunately, the tables are squished so close together that a server kept accidentally banging my head with a tray as he went out the patio door.

Our server didn't even remember it was Restaurant Week until we reminded her, but despite little setbacks like these, the food impressed. 

See whether a $30 Restaurant Week dinner at Spasso is a bargain or a bust, after the jump...

Sadly, neither pizza nor mozzarella was offered on the Arizona Spring Restaurant Week menu. Luckily I had a dining companion in tow who didn't mind doing a quick price and taste comparison of the regular menu to the Restaurant Week offerings.

Shrimp sauteed with tomato, garlic, herbs and olive oil were pungent and delicious -- though 5 standard-sized shrimp got lost on a huge white plate, making the appetizer look pretty puny.

The housemade gnocchi and chocolate creme brulee dessert more than made up for a smaller appetizer. The former were dense pillows of individually cut potato pasta smothered with a light gorgonzola cream sauce that had a sharp tang mitigated by the milky sauce. The creme brulee was more like a thick mousse, with a whipped texture and air bubbles throughout. The crystallized sugar was a little burnt on one side, likely owing to the difficulty of seeing the color change against a dark chocolate background. 

Still, we polished off the whole dessert, with gnocchi leftovers to spare.

How did the meal stack up against the mozzarella bar & pizza offerings? The three-meat pizza was spicy and robust, with a delicate herbed tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella. It's a pity that the Restaurant Week menu didn't contain the hand-pulled buffalo mozz, which had a wonderful sweet flavor and a soft, squeaky texture.

Still, $30 for shrimp, gnocchi, mousse masquerading as creme brulee and a glass of house chardonnay is a steal compared to the nearly $30 you'd pay for just the pizza and one-cheese appetizer.

Maybe chef-owner Michael Lepore had it right when he left one of his best creations off of the Restaurant Week menu. He knew guests would hear other diners rave about the cheese, and have to come back again to try it.   

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