I spotted one of the giant new shopping centers that seem to be springing up these days in our sprawling Valley like mushrooms after a summer rain.
I noted the tenants: shops selling linens, bathroom accessories, women's clothes, shoes, electronics equipment, compact discs, sports gear, cosmetics, kitchen utensils, books, jewelry, lighting fixtures, furniture. I realized that every store in this temple to mass merchandising was more or less the same as every other store in every other shopping center in Maricopa County.
A similar thought crossed my mind when I started thinking about our local Italian-restaurant scene. It seems to me there are scores, maybe hundreds, of Italian places in the Valley, each with more or less identical menus: pizza, pasta, calzone.
It's not that the goods at the mall stores and the fare at most neighborhood Italian restaurants aren't perfectly adequate. They are. But you're not likely to find anything at either that's particularly unique, special or memorable.
I'm much fussier about food, however, than I am about, say, clothing. When I need shoes, I'm the last person to seek out some high-class shoe boutique. I go to the neighborhood-mall store and buy the first reasonably priced pair that fits.
But pasta? I'll drive through several zip codes to trek to Nina L'Italiana Ristorante, Gianni Cucina Italiana or Maria's When in Naples, where Old World virtuosos make their own pasta from scratch. Pizza? I'll head to faraway Vito's, Oregano's or Pizzeria Bianco, where the proprietors take their craft seriously. Calzones? I'll go all the way to Mesa for Euro Cafe's monster version. Sure, this involves extra time and cost, but, according to my calculations, I still come out ahead.
I suppose it may seem like damning with faint praise to say that both Pasta Brioni and Poma's Ristorante & Deli do very solid jobs with their Italian staples. Both spots apparently have their followings--even during the summer doldrums, the two seem to be doing good business. Still, given the quality of some of the competition, they're not yet what I'd call destination restaurants, places to which I'd be willing to make a special trip.
Pasta Brioni combines an appealing old-fashioned casualness with a bit of Scottsdale stylishness. The result? Good vibes. Credit the jaunty, finger-snappin' Sinatra spilling from the music system, the red-and-white-checked tablecloths, the Tiffany-style lamps, the lace cafe curtains, the shelves lined with cans of tomato and olive oil, the bundles of dried pasta and loaves of bread set by a small clay fireplace in the middle of the room, the bottles of Sole Italian mineral water on the table and the young, on-the-ball staff.
The most disturbing element here is the price-to-portion ratio--it's out of whack. Even though the food is quite good, it's not always clear that you're getting your money's worth. If you don't order right, you can actually leave Pasta Brioni hungry. For an Italian restaurant, that's a mortal sin.
Take the spiedini alla Romano, an upscale-appetizer take on fried-cheese sticks. It's a wedge of baked mozzarella lined with a bit of prosciutto and covered with a zesty anchovy sauce. It's tasty, too, but there are about three bites to it. At $5.95, I thought it was pricey. When I returned two weeks later, it was up to $6.95.
It's the same story with the eggplant-rollatini starter. You get a small piece of five-dollar eggplant stuffed with ricotta, much too small to develop any sort of relationship with.
The best appetizer option may be the calamari salad, a summery blend of tender squid, mixed greens, onions and carrots dressed with lemon, olive oil and garlic. Or you can always opt to forgo starters entirely, and munch on soft, chewy breadsticks.
One reason the pasta entrees seem so insubstantial is that they're not preceded by soup or salad, or accompanied by a side dish of veggies. Come here and order the lasagna, for example, and that's all you're going to get. It's a cheesy wedge, perked up with mild Italian sausage. But my 12-year-old knocked it off in about 90 seconds. It took two baskets of bread to tamp down her unsatisfied pangs of hunger.
We had the same experience with farfalle alla Luigi and rigatoni con salsiccia. Both are vigorously flavored: The former combines bow-tie pasta with spinach, prosciutto and garlic; the latter features pasta tubes and sausage deftly moistened with a creamy tomato sauce. But the portions were almost spa-like.
The kitchen gets a little more generous with the angel-hair pasta, flavored with Jerusalem artichoke. The thin strands of pasta were perfectly cooked, and freshened with diced tomato and basil.
At $12.95, linguini alla pescatore is the most expensive menu item. Don't look for much pescatore--one shrimp, one mussel, a tablespoon of calamari and a few cockles. But the pasta benefits from a wine, olive oil and garlic sauce that has real ethnic bite.
For dinnertime heft, you must turn to the pizzas and calzones. Surprisingly, both are bargain-priced. At $3.95, the ten-inch pizza, with its chewy crust and generous layer of cheese, makes a satisfying dinner for one, or a shared appetizer for two. The three-cheese calzone, filled with ricotta, provolone and fontina, sports a bit of old-neighborhood flair.
If you're hungry for dessert--and that's a good bet--Pasta Brioni's sweets are worth hanging around for. The homemade tiramisu is light on coffee flavor, but very rich and creamy. The peach sorbet is light and refreshing. And the hazelnut ice cream is a knockout. (It's not homemade, said the waiter, but the kitchen wouldn't tell him where it came from.) The espresso is wretched.
Good as it is, Pasta Brioni is competing in a tough market. The quality and setting are pretty much there. Let's hope the proprietors add value to the mix.
Poma's Ristorante & Deli, 11056 North Saguaro, Fountain Hills, 837-2222. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
My kids always find the drive out Shea Boulevard to Fountain Hills very educational. That's because my wife and I teach them new words on every trip: "Look what they're doing to the #*@%*! desert," we moan, each time we pass the acres of new development.
Fortunately, a stop at Poma's ends the aggravation, at least temporarily.
The place shamelessly revels in most of the Italian-restaurant-decor cliches: Chianti in wicker baskets on the table, piped-in music from the homeland ("Santa Lucia," "Come Back to Sorrento"), a mural of an Italian village and a red, white and green color scheme that recalls the old-country flag.
It's also got some touches other Italian restaurants don't, like a great view of nearby Four Peaks, delightfully frigid air conditioning and copies of the trade magazine Pizza Today in the bathroom. Poma's is uncommonly kid-friendly, too: The waitress even offered to hold one couple's squirmy infant while they ate.
The food is friendly, too. Unlike Pasta Brioni, Poma's knows its Italian-restaurant niche: basic fare, big portions, low prices.
You could start off with an appetizer, like fried calamari or battered zucchini. But there's no compelling reason to, because dinners all come with soup or salad. The minestrone is pedestrian, but the greenery, mixed with tomato, olives and cheese, works just fine, especially if you take intermittent nibbles on the loaf of homemade bread.
Pasta dishes are uncomplicatedly satisfying. Linguini with baby clams is a winner: oily, clammy, winy and tinged with fresh basil. Fettuccine with pesto also conveys an ethnic punch, a mound of pasta zipped up by a flavorful sauce heavy with the scent of garlic and pine nuts. Baked spaghetti is a sure-fire kid-pleaser, right-out-of-the-oven crisp and bubbling with a layer of cheese. And while the gnocchi--potato-flour dumplings--aren't quite as ethereally light as they are at the Valley's fanciest pasta palaces, Poma's $6.95 tag makes additional criticism seem churlish.
Eggplant parmigiana is also well-fashioned, slabs of eggplant layered with cheese and smothered in a marinara sauce that tastes like someone's mother might have been stirring it for hours. A side of spaghetti makes this a good menu choice, especially if your appetite is bigger than your bank account.
Pizza is another low-cost option. The toppings aren't fancy--you won't see goat cheese or Thai barbecued chicken here. But the pizza foundations--crust, cheese, sauce--are all effective. In its original form, though, the cheese calzone lacks Little Italy authenticity--instead of two cheeses, it comes with either mozzarella or ricotta. But for an additional 95 cents, you can set the calzone right and get both. And once you do, I don't think there'll be many complaints.
Stick to the in-house desserts. Zeppole are a streets-of-New York treat that you rarely find in the desert Southwest. They're fresh, hot little balls of fried dough sprinkled with powdered sugar. Bet you can't eat just one. And the cannoli, filled with sweetened ricotta cheese and chocolate chips, will take the edge off the desert destruction you'll be seeing again on your drive back into town.
Poma's charms alone may not be sufficient to lure you all the way out to the fringes of the Valley. But if you find yourself out this way, Poma's makes it easy to find an excuse to extend your stay.
Poma's Ristorante & Deli: