Perfect Scordato

Mama Mia...Even The Experienced Diner Must Rave About The Wonders Of Dining At Vivace.

By Rebecca Cook

I'VE FOLLOWED DANIEL Scordato for the better part of two decades. Although he's probably unaware of it (we've never been formerly introduced), we have a long-standing relationship. I first encountered him at the popular westside restaurant that bears his family name. I can't recall every detail of this initial contact, but I remember a passionate debate between Scordato and one of my dinner companions on the perfect recipe for pesto. After Scordato left the table and returned to the kitchen, my friend nodded, smiled knowingly, and said something like, "Keep an eye on him; he's absolutely extraordinary."

Recalling her sage advice, I beat a hasty path to the door of Daniel's, Scordato's first effort away from the family business, when it opened in a plush upstairs venue Plaza Palomino. It didn't take long for the restaurant to become my favorite place to dine on special occasions. Scordato's commitment to the freshest, most seasonally available ingredients and his deft skill at combining these components into dishes reflecting all the brilliance and Northern Italian tradition of his own imagination and heritage secured my devotion. Hardly a birthday passed that I didn't manage to wheedle a night on the town as Scordato's guest.

Chow When Daniel's migrated west to St. Philip's Plaza, I followed. And when Scordato sold that restaurant and started yet another fledgling venture in the Crossroads Festival called Vivace, I was there. As a matter of fact, I'm still there. Even after all these years, Scordato still holds the key to my food-loving heart.

One of the more remarkable things about Vivace is its unwavering consistency. I've heard tales about bad meals here, but I've personally never experienced anything that fell short of perfection, an amazing circumstance considering the number of times I've dined here over the years. Given the multitude of positive dining experiences, I'd readily forgive an off night. To Scordato's credit, though, such forgiveness has never been necessary.

The best way to approach an evening at Vivace is to allow plenty of time, and to enjoy as many courses as possible. You won't be disappointed if you blow in, wolf down an entrée and quickly depart; but you'll miss out on what makes this restaurant truly special.

Appetizers alone could keep you preoccupied for hours. I'm a confessed devotee of Vivace's escargot and artichokes, which come to your table bubbling hot and exuding the heady essence of garlic, blue cheese and butter. If there's a culinary definition of decadence, this dish may be it. Scooped onto a piece of Vivace's fine, crusty bread, this is a small beginning of epic proportions.

Also deserving mention is the spinach and cheese soufflé, a warm, delicate custard with the sharp, creamy bite of parmigian, and the wholesome, earthy pleasure of greens. If you're looking for a nouveau twist on comfort food, this dish (which appears on the lunch menu as an entrée) makes a promising candidate.

A selection of salads characterizes Vivace's greens, all of them bursting with the fresh and bright flavors of a carefully tended garden. My personal favorite is the mesclun greens tossed with Roquefort cheese, sliced pears, walnuts and a subtle balsamic vinaigrette. I believe I could eat this salad every day and never tire of the combination of sweet, bitter, tangy and salty, which good-naturedly compete but always end in a tie. The roasted red bell-pepper and mixed-green salad, served with crunchy croutons and a creamy garlic dressing, is also terrific; as is the spinach salad tossed with a warm pancetta and port wine dressing, topped with romano cheese and pine nuts.

Soups are prepared daily and run the gamut from split pea with ham to lobster bisque. I've yet to taste one that failed to warm the very cockles of my being.

Entrees include a wide selection of pastas, grilled meats and seafood. If you have difficulty deciding, take heart (or heed) that there's not a clinker in the bunch. Volumes could be written about Scordato's wizardry with veal. Matters of conscience aside, there's no place in town that treats a young cow better, as evidenced by Vivace's "Veal of the Day" selection. Since selections vary daily, occasionally a customer will be disappointed to find a dish they adored on a previous visit is not being offered.

On a recent visit, an elderly patron insisted she absolutely had to have the veal parmigiana, an item, unfortunately, not included on that day's menu. The dowager was adamant she was to have that dish or nothing at all. When the waiter patiently tried to dissuade her for the umpteenth time, the woman pulled her trump card: She demanded to speak to "Danny," who, she informed her server, had been serving her veal parmigiana since before the youthful waiter was out of diapers. Master Scordato subsequently appeared, the patron's plumage was smoothed, and a special order for veal parmigiana honored. I tell this story by way of illustrating the kind of passion Vivace's veal can evoke. Fortunately, the veal chop filled with spinach and asiago cheese, the dish of which I happen to be most fond, is always on the menu.

Vivace is also one of the finest places in town for fresh seafood. Selections vary with availability, so pay close attention to your server's dutiful recitation of the daily specials. Grilled sea bass with a gentle tomato butter was a smashing success at lunch one day, the fish so flaky and moist we could have sworn it had been swimming just prior to our arrival. On the regular menu, the linguine with grilled salmon, chopped red onion, capers, sliced kalamata olives, tomatoes and fresh basil is an absolute dream--a dish that needs but a few sips of Chardonnay and a mere crust of good bread to fulfill the requirements of perfection. The seafood soup, Vivace's take on bouillabaisse, includes capellini pasta and an abundance of shrimp, lobster, mussels, white fish, tomatoes, onions, garlic, herbs and white wine, all swirling seductively in a large bowl.

I would be remiss not to mention the trattoria's deft treatment of chicken. How the kitchen manages to coax such moist tenderness from each and every piece of fowl is a marvel, but such is the case regardless of its treatment. At lunch I thoroughly enjoyed the breaded chicken breast, a large portion of boneless meat pounded into quarter-inch thickness and pan-fried to a crisp, nut brown. It's served in a pool of green peppercorn sauce, and accompanied by a healthy mound of garlic and potato puree. This is meat-and-potatoes fare to be sure, but oh, what a difference from usual suspects: nothing the least bit greasy, and everything full-flavored and so well-tended it could be cut with the edge of a fork. On another occasion, a daily special of chicken cacciatore, tender boneless breast meat simmered in a rich marinara sauce and spooned over a bowl of fettuccine, also scored high marks.

Dessert, a course many circumspect souls will be tempted to forego, is one of Vivace's crowning glories. Take any steps necessary to ensure you leave room for either the lemon mousse napoleon, with fresh strawberries and red berry coulis; the vanilla bean-flecked crème brûlée (one of the best versions in town); a sinfully dense and flourless chocolate torte; homemade spumoni ice cream; or the ever-popular tiramisu. You'll be glad you did.

If Daniel Scordato pulled up stakes and moved to Walla Walla, I'd probably tag along. For the time being, I'm happy to report he's content to let Vivace rest comfortably in its niche as one of Tucson's finest dining enclaves.

Vivace Restaurant. 4811 E. Grant Road. 795-7221. Open 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday. Full bar. V, MC, checks. Menu items: $3.50-$19.95. TW

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