Cafe Reviews

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Roman Holiday: Italian food is incredibly popular. The Valley probably has more Italian restaurants than any other kind, even Mexican. For sheer combination of value and taste, I don't think any of them can match La Fontanella. I gave it a huge thumbs up when I reviewed it a couple of years ago. Now, dozens of Italian restaurants later, its quality stands out even more clearly. It's a homey place, a single room with crisp, white-lace curtains, a big, wooden breakfront and the kind of street-scene paintings you'd find at your grandparents' place. Piped-in music is of the accordion "Finiculi, Finicula" variety. The kitchen is headed by a couple of Sicilians by way of Chicago, who opened La Fontanella about a decade ago. Long may they flourish. It seems like everything I've had here just explodes with flavor. Supplç ($3), a Roman specialty, are rice croquettes stuffed with mozzarella, deep-fried in egg batter. They're a scrumptious starter. So are the escargots ($6.50), maybe the tenderest gastropods in Maricopa County, drenched in enough garlic butter to swivel your head 360 degrees. Marinated eggplant ($4.50) is an uncomplicated delight. The main dishes share the holy trinity of restaurant qualities I worship: big portions, great taste and reasonable price. According to foodie magazines, lamb shank is becoming just as popular with restaurantgoers as veal shank. La Fontanella's lamb agrassato is probably the reason. It's absolutely superb, tender enough to cut with a glance. Braised in Marsala, two hefty shanks come adorned with raisins, hunks of potato and a slightly sweet tinge. There's also a side of lovely seasoned vegetables--carrots, broiled tomatoes, potatoes and spinach--to round off the platter. It will take a professionally trained belly to polish it off in one sitting. No question diners are getting their $12.25 worth. The veal osso buco ($13.75) is just as appealing, seasoned with parsley, thyme, plum tomatoes and pancetta. It's fall-off-the-bone tender. Another veal specialty is the veal alla Berto ($13.25). It's charbroiled, topped with pancetta, spinach and melted fontina, and served with half an artichoke. It's the kind of dish that makes you say "Mmmm" after every bite. Last year, New Times bestowed a "Best of Phoenix" on the rack of lamb. At $21.25, it's about seven bucks more than the next costliest entree. But you won't feel cheated. Four magnificently juicy chops come rubbed with spices, Dijon mustard and a sprinkling of breadcrumbs. Make sure your dinner partner is ready to catch you, should you swoon from the heady fragrance. Seafood and pasta are first-rate, too. Salmon reale features poached salmon topped with scallops, in a sherry cream sauce flecked with pine nuts. And the light homemade gnocchi are bathed in a light sauce redolent with sauted tomatoes and pancetta. Desserts are no letdown. La Fontanella is well-known for its homemade gelato. Its appearance in the chocolate hazelnut tartufo is worth celebrating. Cannoli and tiramisu offer the same uncompromising high quality. Good food, good service, good prices, in a good setting. La Fontanella seems to have hit upon the magic restaurant formula. It's at 4231 East Indian School. Call 955-1213.

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Howard Seftel