aiello's fine italian dining
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Aiello's Fine Italian Dining
March, 2008, Page 174
5202 N. Central Ave., Phoenix
Nothing gets my hackles up like New York restaurateurs who’ve moved to Phoenix. There’s generally a whiff of condescension about them, as if they’re going to show us rubes what good food really is.
So I must admit, I went to Aiello’s with a tiny chip on my shoulder. See, I’d read somewhere that the Food Network’s Dining Around program had rated Joe Aiello’s former Manhattan restaurant as one of the top-20 spots on the Upper West Side. Being from Missouri, I was looking for tangible proof.
I didn’t expect to be so quickly disarmed by Joe, his wife Myrah and their utterly sincere staff. These people really want you to have a good time, and it’s hard not to, given that the open, earth-toned dining room is generally filled with customers who seem to be doing just that – eating and drinking like people who know how to carpe their diem.
The wide, granite-topped bar overlooking the exhibition kitchen stays full of grazers and walk-ins who don’t want to make dinner into a two-hour deal. It’s where my friend and I sat the night of my first visit, watching Joe and his crew as they worked. Through the course of our meal, he cracked jokes and acknowledged, by smile or nod, nearly everyone at the bar.
But the jolly attitude wasn’t enough to dissolve the aforementioned chip. That was accomplished by the first course, namely Tre Colore Salad ($7) and stuffed artichoke hearts ($9). The salad was light and simple, a mix of arugula, radicchio and endive, tossed with EVOO and lemon and sprinkled with shaved Parmesan. The breaded and fried artichokes came stuffed with mascarpone and ladled with cream reduction, rich and tangy at once. We mopped everything up with excellent house-made focaccia, cake-like in texture and irresistible with soft, herbed butter.
Life was looking pretty good until the entrées arrived. Although the pasta in the Spaghetti Carbonara was perfectly cooked, the dish was disappointing ($15). How could I not love Pancetta and caramelized onion tossed with fresh parsley and egg yolk, I asked myself. The dish is essentially bacon and eggs with spaghetti. But it was blah, and I’m guessing the fault lay with the Parmesan. I had already noticed that the Parmesan in my salad was bland and rubbery, clearly not pure Parmigiano-Reggiano, which is crumbly, rich and slightly salty. Meanwhile, my partner’s orechiette with broccoli rabe (a pungent, leafy green with broccoli-like buds) and civilate (pork sausage stuffed with cheese) was even less appealing. The broccoli rabe (which I’d loved just two weeks before at Andreoli) was make-a-face bitter, which marred the entire dish ($14).
Although I wasn’t crazy about Baba au Rhum (an Italian cream-filled pastry glazed with rum syrup, $8), my buddy gobbled it up while I occupied myself with Isa’s Chocolate Torta, a pyramid of chocolate cake and chocolate mousse, coated with chocolate ganache, which restored my optimism ($8).
A second visit had similar peaks and valleys. We loved the Mozzarella Carozza, a sort of Italian grilled cheese, dipped in egg like a Monte Cristo and served with a lemon-wine sauce salty with capers and anchovies ($7). The minestrone – neither “hearty” nor “zesty” as the menu had described it – tasted flat ($5), while the calamari fritti, served with a crushed red pepper-spiked fradiavolo sauce, was too greasy to be really good ($10).
Veal saltimbocca alla Romana bore little resemblance to any saltimbocca I’ve had before ($20). Typically, saltimbocca (which means “leap into your mouth”) is composed of paper-thin slices of veal rolled up with prosciutto and fresh sage leaves, pan-fried to a golden brown and finished with white wine. Aiello’s version is thick, unrolled and finished with Marsala – ungainly and a bit unorthodox. Chicken paillard, on the other hand, has been pounded too thin, scattered with only a few skimpy leaves of arugula and that same inferior Parmesan, which doesn’t come shaved so much as chunked ($15). This meal makes me pine for the Italian food at other, better Italian restaurants, some of which are long gone: the minestrone at Livia’s, the calamari at Avanti, the chicken paillard at Franco’s.
Once again, redemption is found in dessert – this time, a heavenly zabaglione with strawberries. If only the rest of the meal could have been this good!
But the third time is almost a charm, despite an unexceptional Caprese made with firm, house-made mozzarella and lousy tomatoes ($9). An anchovy-topped Caesar salad is decent enough but too dry to be stellar ($6). However, eggplant rollatini, stuffed with ricotta, mozzarella and pecorino and bathed in light tomato sauce, is pure-D comfort ($8).
And lo and behold, I found two entrées I actually like! Spaghetti and Joe’s Famous Meatballs (ranked the best in NYC, according to the menu) is excellent, thanks to two tender, giant-size meatballs made with pork and veal ($16). I don’t usually like meatballs and now I know why. Most of them aren’t as light as these, which are based on Joe’s mother’s recipe. Spaghetti alla Puttanesca, tossed in a spicy tomato sauce piquant with capers, cracked olives, anchovies and garlic, is yummy too ($14).
I can’t resist a second go at the zabaglione, ordering a generous slice of Italian cheesecake for good measure. Ricotta cheese, brightened with lemon, makes it softer and milder than New York cheesecake, but it’s dreamy just the same ($8).
Truth be told, Aiello’s doesn’t bring anything new or exciting to the Valley’s Italian restaurant landscape. We already have a few dozen Italian restaurants that do a better job consistently, so there’s no light-unto-the-darkness scenario here. But the Aiellos are charming; their food can be really tasty, and Central Phoenix folks seem delighted to have a friendly, affordable Italian spot in their neighborhood. Who am I to argue?
Lunch, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday; dinner, 4 p.m. to 10 p.m., Monday through Saturday, 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday.
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