Americans are obsessed with progress. Everything always has to be up-to-the-minute new and better than it was. When's the last time you saw an ad for a product that boasted "Old and Unimproved!"?
Rushing to embrace the latest novelty, we sometimes forget that change isn't necessarily progress. Ask the people behind New Coke, the Arch Deluxe and the Charles Barkley trade.
Some things work too well to cast aside simply for the sake of change. Will a new car get me to work any faster? Will a new computer make the agony of writing any easier? Will a new spouse make me any happier? At this point, old and unimproved still suit me just fine.
Restaurants are no different. Now, the mere fact that a restaurant has been around a certain number of years is no guarantee of kitchen prowess, past or present. In any field, longevity isn't always keyed to quality. If it were, Stephen King would be polishing his Nobel Prize for Literature and we'd all still be using AT&T's long-distance service.
But standing the test of time should count for something. At a minimum, in the restaurant business, it suggests a certain reliability and predictability. So I went to check out the appeal of two Valley Italian old-timers, Tutti Santi and Tomaso's.
Never heard of Tutti Santi? No surprise there--it's only been around for about six months under that name. But it's really a reincarnation of Nina L'Italiana, which had to close down its long-running Bell Road operation when the Squaw Peak Parkway bulldozers started plowing north.
It now occupies a strip-mall spot that has buried two restaurants in the last few years. But the landlord can relax--it looks like Tutti Santi will be doing business for a while.
The main dining area is a long room with a slanted ceiling and mirror at one end. There's a more intimate enclosed section off the other end, decorated with a colorful mural of Florence. Smokers, beware: You'll be exiled to restaurant Siberia, a small area on the far side of the premises, just off the bar.
Nina has remembered how to put guests at ease. On both visits I was treated as if the staff knew who I was. (It didn't.) Service is uncommonly gracious and knowledgeable, and each evening concluded with a flaming, on-the-house Sambuca, an Italian liqueur.
But Nina must have had a memory lapse when she filled the breadbasket. In the old place, diners got wonderful fresh-grilled garlic bread dusted with Parmesan cheese. You could smell it when you walked in. Here, you get a third-rate Italian loaf teamed with ugly, foil-wrapped pats of butter. Even lowbrow Italian chain restaurants deliver focaccia and fresh-baked bread these days. It makes a lousy first impression.
Fortunately, the rest of dinner makes the bread misstep easier to overlook. Appetizers give off the scents of the Mediterranean. Dazzling mussels freshened in a white-wine garlic sauce furnish summery satisfaction. Carpaccio, raw, translucently thin slices of filet mignon, are dappled with the flavors of Italy: diced tomatoes, capers, basil, olive oil and Parmesan cheese. Calamari fritti are marvelous: crunchy on the outside, tender on the inside. And the antipasto for two is worth the $10 tag. Prosciutto-wrapped melon and fried ravioli are its two most outstanding components.
If you're looking to eat on the budget plan, you could fill the hunger cracks with the gratis salad or soup that precedes all entrees. The greenery is notable more for heft than quality, but sometimes that will do. If the soup of the day is the stracciatella, though, don't hesitate. It's like an Italian chicken egg-drop soup, and quite tasty.
The main dishes brought back remembrance of things pasta. Nina had a way with noodles, and she hasn't lost her touch. Fettuccine al pesto is perhaps the best dish here, and at $9.95 it's also the cheapest. But it's not for the faint-hearted--you won't find a richer pasta platter in the Valley. Homemade fettuccine, flecked with diced potatoes and broccoli, comes coated with a heart-stopping pesto cream sauce. You can get secondhand arteriosclerosis just sitting near it.
As rich and heavy as the fettuccine is, that's how light and ethereal the homemade ravioli are. They're stuffed with ricotta and spinach, finished with a touch of cream and moistened with a delicate tomato sauce. Tortellini panna rosa are just about as feathery, meat-stuffed pasta pouches in a brandy-tinged sauce, festooned with bits of leeks, mushrooms, peas and ham.
Some of the nonpasta dishes also shine. Veal Francese is formidable: gorgeously tender veal scaloppine coated with a lemon-butter sauce, perked up with capers, mushrooms and artichoke hearts. Chicken bocconcini brings strips of poultry gilded with a rich, winy sauce and zipped up with olives, mushrooms and artichokes. And the red snapper, moistened in a white-wine tomato sauce, displays the virtues of simplicity.