Cafe Reviews

Small Wonders

Page 2 of 3

Two dishes to avoid: The meatballs in the spaghetti and meatballs are loaded with salt, and have an off-putting texture. The greasy, chewy pork chop, inexplicably served without rice, potatoes or pasta, needs a major overhaul.

Panini sandwiches are another option. They're outstanding, too: homemade bread stuffed with a variety of fillings, then grilled in a sandwich press. I'm partial to the veggie model, a mix of eggplant, zucchini, mushrooms, peppers and onion that cries out for a dollop of goat cheese. The chicken panini is equally impressive: poultry steeped in wine and garlic, teamed with cheese and peppers.

The dessert list isn't very deep, but it's strong. Mom would be proud of the homemade fruit pies -- apple, peach, blueberry. The triple fudge brownie is as rich and chocolaty as you could want. And D'Atri's admirable biscotti make lingering over espresso even more fun. But one part of this cafe experience isn't so delightful -- stiff prices. Six-dollar soups, eight-dollar sandwiches, 15-dollar lasagna and three-dollar espresso can take the edge off an evening's gaiety pretty quickly. D'Atri's Cinema Paradiso has a lot of good things working for it. There's really nothing like it in the neighborhood. The food, setting and atmosphere are already there. So why not make the experience a little more affordable and give folks another reason to come, instead of giving them an excuse to stay away?

Café Forté, 7032 East Main, Scottsdale, 480-994-1331. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner, Thursday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.

Set in Scottsdale's Art Gallery district, Café Forté might remind you of a friendly neighborhood spot in SoHo or Greenwich Village. That's not surprising: The four women proprietors know what it takes, having operated a dessert cafe in the Big Apple for 18 years before moving here.

It's a cute, laid-back place, the walls done up in soothing desert colors, hung with art for sale. Judy Garland, Lena Horne and Dean Martin croon softly in the background. The back hallway is lined with arresting photos of New York City landmarks. But the ladies had nothing to do with the cafe's best touch: real, live pedestrian traffic, marching up and down the block. What a nice change of pace to look through a restaurant window in this town and see signs of urban life, instead of a parking lot.

Café Forté has the good sense to get its bread from the Arizona Bread Company, so you'll need all your will power to avoid buttering up a loaf of ciabatta, drinking a glass of wine and calling it a night.

A few appetizers provide diversion. Baked Brie, swathed in a light puff pastry and surrounded by apples, is a pleasant nosh. A salad of romaine, arugula, Gorgonzola and walnuts benefits from a zesty Dijon vinaigrette. The only shortcoming with the artichoke-studded spinach dip is that there isn't seven bucks enough of it.

Don't get your hopes up over the tomato topped with fresh mozzarella. I ordered this it's-on-every-menu starter to see what kind of tomatoes I'd get in November. The answer: tasteless.

The entrees, as comfortable as the setting, are a mixed lot. Someone in the kitchen clearly knows what to do with fish. Salmon comes crusted with enough horseradish to clear the sinuses of everyone at your table, even if all they do is take a whiff. But I really enjoyed the sharp flavor. And a veggie-flecked brown rice pilaf makes just the right side. Orange roughy also shows spunk, punched up with olives and capers, and served atop a bed of thick mashed potatoes.

Two pasta dishes weren't to my taste, but not everyone may share my views. I found the homemade lasagna so impossibly rich and heavy that no Italian flavor could come through. And the wild mushroom ravioli had a one-dimensional intensity that caused me to lose interest after just a few bites.

Carnivores with small appetites can turn confidently to the meat loaf. They'll get a few dainty slices -- no hulking slab of beef here -- sparked with an up-to-date wine sauce. But no appetite, big or small, ought to turn to the sliced sirloin steak. A few ounces of undistinguished meat, sprinkled with a few crumbs of Gorgonzola and finished in a drab wine sauce, don't nearly add up to $19 of pleasure. I knew this platter was in trouble when I ignored the steak to work on the veggies it came with.

The kitchen also makes sandwiches. The sliced sirloin steak was no better on a baguette than it was on a plate. But Café Forté's version of a Cuban sandwich -- an oven-baked baguette filled with ham, cheese and roast pork, served with seasoned waffle fries -- hit my buttons. It also hit my wallet. Twelve dollars for a sandwich? Even in Scottsdale, that's a stretch.

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Howard Seftel