Cafe Reviews

Where's the Beefcake?

At the risk of sounding as tacky as the guy who admits he eats at Hooters for the view, I must be blunt: I go to Pasta Brioni for the gorgeous waiters. Yeah, I'm guilty: I stop in for spaghetti and meatballs knowing that my meal comes to me courtesy of a dark-haired, doe-eyed, drop dead beautiful man. It's been said that Pasta Brioni owner Brian Ruggiero hires only cute Italian guys from New Jersey, and I believe it.

Before someone slams me for my sexist confession, let's keep in mind that I've got as little chance of scoring attention from most of these staffers as does the average blue-collar schnook scoping out a Hooters chick. The "Brioni Boys," as they're called, are there to appeal to a male clientele. As the "Gay in Phoenix" Web site gushes, Pasta Brioni is "quite the find. Good Italian food and great eye candy on the waiters." In a delightfully camp touch, the servers sport names like Gino, Giuseppi, Vinni and Stallone.

And more important, unlike Hooters, with its mediocre "More Than a Mouthful" burger (har har), Pasta Brioni has outstanding food. With such savory herbed homemade "Mama's" meatballs and robust marinara stocking the spaghetti, this place is all about excellent eating in a fun, friendly atmosphere. Ruggiero is a consummate restaurant professional; the handsome waiters are just icing on the cake.

So when I heard that Ruggiero had opened another restaurant, I was there in a heartbeat. His Brioni's Copa Room has taken over what was for a short while the New Orleans-themed chain Copeland's, across from Kierland Commons. I got dressed up, grabbed a girlfriend, and grabbed seats in the bar with great anticipation.

Though this is not the cute, flamboyant Pasta Brioni, Copa immediately becomes one of my favorite restaurants. It's a more upscale experience, fitting for its north Scottsdale location, but one still lush with the meticulous cooking and sense of humor we've come to expect from Ruggiero. With tongue-in-cheek drama, the Copa is also a retro-funky lounge, done up in a 1940s supper club flair with live jazz piano and a dance floor, portraits of Audrey Hepburn and tons of dark polished wood gleaming against crisp white tablecloths. The only thing that could make this restaurant better, in fact, would be if Ruggiero brought over some of his model-caliber waiters from PB.

My girlfriend is initially disappointed that no Brioni Boys are in attendance, though Copa's staffers are plenty pretty in their classy black suit jackets, and there's no stinting on the wisecracking jokes. She's been thinking of that comfy spaghetti and meatballs I've told her about, and whines a little to find we're in for refined offerings like Maine lobster cocktail in spicy rémoulade on a toasted ciabatta crouton, or sautéed calves' liver with sweet onions, crisp applewood smoked bacon, apples and Cabernet demi-glace. As soon as our first appetizer of shrimp à la Brioni arrives, however, she moves from muttering to murmuring in deep pleasure over the trio of jumbo crustaceans gently sautéed in a delicate white wine sauce.

This Copa Room -- I am so there. And several times, too. I only wish other people had the same idea. As my visits march on, I find myself sharing space with consistently small crowds. Then Copa's operating hours dwindle. First, lunch service disappears, a real disappointment, given that executive chef Brian McClintock produces undeniably the best turkey burger that's ever showed up in my universe. The poultry is -- well, was -- thick and firm, moist and outrageously herbed, decorated with avocado, red onion and broiled plum tomatoes. And later, when I stop in for a Monday dinner, the restaurant is dark (the initial seven-day dinner plan has since trimmed away Sunday, too).

I'm guessing that people simply haven't figured out yet what's going on at the lovely restaurant. (The weird signage doesn't help. I drove past the place quite a few times myself, wondering what in the world could be involved in a place called the "Cop" Room. Hint to Brian: Get a new banner. The "a" is completely lost in the stylized martini glass logo.)

If the diners packing chain places like the Cheesecake Factory across the street had a clue, they'd be here instead, hanging with my girlfriend and me. We're thrilled to be working our way through Boston lemon sole, an exquisite hunk of buttery fish expertly poached and puddled with a lusty liquor of chunky tomato, garlic, basil leaves and natural juices. The crowning touch: a generous mantle of baby Manila clams, served in the shell.

A host laughs wistfully that the plush leather couches in the swanky sitting room off the entry will make good places for staffers to take naps on slow nights. This place should never be less than busy, though, not with appetizers like tuna carpaccio, a generous platter of lace thin raw ahi over field greens and crisscrossed with stripes of spicy Dijon crème. And what's more pleasant than listening to tinkling piano tunes while nibbling on an elegant starter of artichoke, poached and served cold? The vegetable is dismantled; the tender leaves splayed like a sunburst around the heart, sprinkled with fresh-grated Parmesan and dipped in a light tangy balsamic dressing. Equally clever: a beet tower, a stunning salad of chopped golden beets, tomato, torn baby arugula, candied walnuts and fresh feta in a gutsy, peppery cumin dressing. Portabella Milanese is as beautiful as any Brioni Boy, too, bringing a giant steak-textured mushroom breaded and sautéed to a crunchy edge, then draped in tart melted Gorgonzola and chunky tomato dripping its juices.

My girlfriend and I order steak, skipping over a 16-ounce pan-roasted sirloin (with wild mushroom risotto and port wine reduction) and an impressive 24-ounce T-bone (real man grub, laden with creamed spinach, garlic mashed potatoes and onion) for a luxurious grilled tenderloin with more of that melted Gorgonzola, baby arugula and fig balsamic. We ask for a knife; our server smiles and says that the meat is so tender, we don't need one, or a fork either. It is good beef, to be sure, and his smile is so swell, we melt like butter ourselves.

Another time, we focus on medallions of veal, and lobster, priced as un-Scottsdale bargains at $19 and $23, respectively. Veal arrives first-class and complex, with sautéed shiitake mushrooms, diced prosciutto, white onion, veal demi-glace and imported Sicilian Florio Marsala. The lobster is a full catch, split, sautéed and nested over angel hair in a light garlic, tomato, basil and white wine broth. We're having such a good time with glasses of wine, and forkfuls of spinach ravioli, layered like those new Oreo cookies with one side green, one side white, and plump with herbed ricotta in tomato basil sauce.

Ruggiero certainly knows his demographics better than I do, and he hasn't asked my opinion, but I for one wouldn't mind seeing a little bit more relaxation to the upscale effort, and more of the funk that makes Pasta Brioni such a kick. Where else in burgeoning, money-fat north Scottsdale can diners go for a terrific meal, live music, and flamboyant ambiance? Barcelona next door comes close, with its over-the-top lounge lizard act, the Zowie Bowie Band. Yet I've never gotten into the careless cuisine there, nor the inflated prices.

Copa Room has everything in place for a frolicking success -- fantastic food, relatively reasonable prices, and a hip ambiance. Ruggiero just needs for the rest of the Valley to discover him. I'm thinking something crazy -- like bringing in a Barry Manilow impersonator to belt out, what else, "Copa Cabana" -- might help get the buzz going. Hey, such a gimmick has worked wonders for Pasta Brioni.

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Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet