The meatball pasta dish ($12 single) and the bolognese ($10 single) both suffered from an herbal infestation and so tasted very similar. On their own, though, the tender, hearty meatballs were just fine: not too dry, not too wet, and very meaty. But the Caesar ($6 single), which we'd ordered as an entree, was so watery -- the romaine hadn't been dried, and the dressing was thin, too -- that it looked like a load of laundry ready to be hung out on the line. The veal done piccata style ($15 single) was tough, an almost impossible accomplishment. And I can't tell you how our last entree, the parsley-loaded brodetto ($18 single), would have tasted that night: The server forgot to put the order in and brought out the dish as we were getting ready to leave, so we took it home. (To his credit, he removed it from the bill.)
We did get to try the tiramisu ($5.95), billed as a single serving but large enough to easily feed two or three. Smooshy, sweet, packed with caffeine, liquor, sugar and fat, it was a standard version -- but what's not to like?
Still, even memories of that last spoonful aren't sweet enough to lure me back to Modena.
On the other hand, I'd return to Piatti in a heartbeat: My two recent meals there were a pleasure from beginning to end.
This warm, laid-back eatery (one of about a dozen links in a California-based chain) opened in 1995 and, like Modena, has gone through a few changes. Piatti's changes, however, were clearly for the better. Two years ago, Mario Godoy took over the kitchen -- he has some help from David Comon, who was sent in from the Phoenix store -- and updated the menu; at the same time, the restaurant underwent a complete management overhaul. Lee Moffett now runs the front of the house, and he does it amazingly well. So well, in fact, that it's fun to watch him work the entire room, which he does unfailingly, even if it's just to snatch an errant scrap of paper from the corner of a table or to check on a glass of wine. The service followed suit: Our water glasses were always kept filled, and silverware was quickly replaced. The servers seemed to know the menu inside and out -- they've tasted the dishes, and they relish sharing that experience -- and were proficient with the wine list. I actually saw one server run an empty wine glass about six inches under his nose and accurately name the wine the woman had been drinking.
But this is a menu worth knowing; the food was wonderful. We started with a slightly salty, creamy, crispy, anchovy-kissed Caesar ($6.95), which came garnished with focaccia croutons that had been coated in butter and fried so that they resembled little polenta squares. The pasta dishes showed the same kind of kitchen savvy: Pappardelle fantasia ($14.95) put saffron-speckled noodles beneath a saffron-heady white-wine sauce sparked by chile-pepper flakes, with shrimp and arugula providing complementary contrasts; the ravioli con spinaci ($12.95) also featured spinach, this time inside nice-sized pasta pillows that also contained whipped ricotta and were blanketed in a delicate but still rich lemon cream sauce.
Piatti knows its way around richness. The scaloppine di vitello ($17.95) brought fork-tender veal in a divine wild-mushroom sauce thickened with Gorgonzola; a beautifully grilled square of polenta offered something to sop up that sauce. The osso buco ($18.95) -- available Tuesday nights only -- was delectable, a meat-falling-off-the-bones veal shank redolent of citrus juices, garlic, rosemary and other herbs (all of which made sense and had been applied at the right times in the cooking process) and served atop a mound of butternut-squash-sweetened risotto. Even the well-crusted pizza was special, a quatro-formaggio version ($9.50) that boasted mozzarella, fontina, parmesan and Gorgonzola as well as a drizzling of white truffle oil and sliced wild mushrooms.
The pizza was evidence that Piatti is willing to experiment in order to keep its Italian fare up to date and lively. Dessert brought more proof, in the form of the chocolate bread pudding ($5.50). A recent menu addition, the bread pudding compacted Piatti's spongy, yeasty bread into a chocolate-injected wedge, the bottom of which was melded chocolate goo. On top sat a ball of vanilla ice cream that quickly melted into sweet cream. During one of my visits, manager Moffett spent a lot of time gauging diners' reactions to this new dessert. It was easy to see that people were impressed.