Joe Scordato Scores Again

Trattoria Giuseppe Serves Fine Food At Peasant Prices.

THERE IS PERHAPS no name more closely associated with fine dining in this town than Scordato.

Longtime residents will fondly recall the original family enterprise on West Speedway Boulevard near Gates Pass, a lovely refuge specializing in refined Old World Italian cuisine, charm and a bird's-eye view of gorgeous sunsets.

As the years passed, the next generation left the nest to start their own restaurants. Daniel Scordato pioneered the establishment that still bears his first name and later went on to open Vivace, a contemporary eatery that combines the best of the family recipes with cutting-edge innovation.

Meanwhile, brother Joe took on Scordato's on Broadway (currently the home of Elle, located at Broadway and Country Club), which also featured many Scordato favorites along with some novelties, such as fresh fish specials.

Eventually other owners took a whirl at making this tempting restaurant space work, and Joe moved on to do some chef work with Danny at Vivace.

Although by all indications the separation was amicable, Joe recently left Vivace and struck out on his own once more, this time coming up with one of the most exciting restaurant ventures to hit town in a long time. Out along East Tanque Verde Road, a small miracle has quietly taken place: food as scrumptious as you remember from the old Scordato days, but at a fraction of the cost of what you'd likely pay in any Italian chain venue.

Since we live in a desert where the temperatures get dangerously high, it seems fair to ask, "Is it all just a mirage?"

After some investigation, I can say with certainty that Trattoria Giuseppe is the real deal. If Joe Scordato set out to make a statement that restaurants can specialize in quality cuisine and charge only modest prices (entrée items range from $5.95 to $13.95), he's definitely made his point. I don't know anyone who's visited this restaurant without coming away with a heartfelt vow to return as soon as possible. It's that good and that affordable.

The site of three former restaurants within the last few years (Café Melange, Nonna's and The Alps), Trattoria Giuseppe is sleek and comfortable. It's not as conspicuously upscale as either the old Scordato's or Vivace, but neither is it too laid back. An understated classy casualness pervades the space, the ideal ambience for good company, good food and good wine.

If you bring the friends, Trattoria Giuseppe will take care of all the rest.

It's often commonplace, but we begin our meal with an order of bruschetta. Predictably, nothing at Joe Scordato's is as mundane as it seems. Rather than petite rounds of crusty bread topped with a few dabs of cheese or vegetables, Trattoria Giuseppe presents four hearty garlic-scented slices mounded high with chopped tomatoes, goat cheese and melted mozzarella. Try any of the reasonably priced wines (ranging from $7.95 to $32) with this appetizer and you're well on your way to paradise.

Next we split the Napa salad, an exquisite toss of mixed greens, crumbled blue cheese, grilled asparagus spears and peppery-sweet toasted pecans in a light balsamic vinaigrette. It turns out that even the split portion is substantial, so unless you're planning to make this your main course, you'd do well to share. The swirl of sweet, pungent, savory and zesty flavors that wash across the palate as you nibble on this salad is electrifying. Bravo!

Next we sally through an assortment of entrées, attempting as well as possible to cover the scope available to us. We arrive at a combined order of chicken Madeira, pork modenese, steak rosa and that standby of every vegetarian, eggplant parmesan.

The unanimous hit of the evening turns out to be the chicken Madeira, tender cutlets of breaded breast meat served atop sautéed spinach, filled with prosciutto ham and mozzarella cheese and covered with a salty-sweet Madeira wine sauce. Although I would have preferred a side of spaghetti and red sauce rather than the tepid vegetable rice that came with the dish, the main event was a smashing success.

The pork modenese was another winner. A thin scaloppini of pork tenderloin arrived smothered in sautéed mild, sweet onions and tomato sauce lightly seasoned with garlic and oregano. Deceptively simple, the dish gained the diner's appreciation with each and every bite. Sometimes, less truly is more.

Eggplant parmesan may be the sanctuary of the vegetarian, but if done well, makes an elegant repast for anyone, regardless of his or her food preferences. Trattoria Giuseppe's rendition is admirable, with breaded rounds of eggplant that have been cooked until tender but not mushy and covered in a savory marinara sauce and melted mozzarella and parmesan cheese. No new territory is explored here, but familiar ground was never better.

The only vague disappointment was the steak rosa, a marinated New York strip steak grilled with a red wine mushroom sauce and served with linguine and tomato sauce. The flavors were marvelous--sultry wine, earthy mushrooms and subtle infusions of garlic, basil and oregano--but the quality of the meat was a letdown. Cooked to the specified medium-rare, the meat itself was tasteless, tough and stringy. Had the steak been topnotch, this dish would have been a standout.

Some may consider desserts to be superfluous, but if you can't manage a slice of the ethereal dolce de Patricia or a mere spoonful of the custard zabaglione, you'll be missing a highlight of the Trattoria Giuseppe experience. The dolce de Patricia, a four-layer white cake interspersed with fillings of chocolate cream and vanilla vermouth, is so dreamy, so light and airy, you'd never suspect it of caloric excess. The zabaglione, topped with whipped cream and slivered almonds, is permeated with amaretto, giving it a luscious marzipan sensibility.

Service is efficient, friendly and incredibly well informed about the menu and wine list.

In short, there is nothing about Trattoria Giuseppe that doesn't work. The Scordato legacy leaves big shoes to fill, but if our recent trip was any indication, Joe must wear about a size 13.

Trattoria Giuseppe. 6761 E. Tanque Verde Road. 298-2233. Open 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday. Full bar. V, MC, AMEX, DISC, CH. Menu items: $3.95-$13.95.