That is how long I have been waiting to get tickets for the Luminaria Festival at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. It is my fault because I always seem to check the DBG website about a week before the festival begins and discover they have no tickets for sale. But this year, fate was on my side and I happen to be on the website in October and noticed the tickets went on sale. So, I made a few calls, got a group together and purchased five tickets. It was like opening the chocolate bar with the golden ticket inside.
Then, I began the waiting. Two months. Eeesh.
The day finally arrived and I couldn’t wait to go. Besides getting the tickets, I also needed to plan dinner following the festival. I ran through a variety of places before taking a chance on Salute Restorante Italiano in Phoenix. I checked out the website and saw the prices were moderate and then made a reservation for 8:30 PM which would give us 2.5 hours at the festival and a half hour drive time.
J., Madge, Boris, Anthony and I all found our way to the Botanical Gardens and spent two hours walking around the grounds. I have to say, it was well worth the wait. The paths had endless luminarias and the various buildings were decorated with trees, poinsettias, garland, more luminarias and plenty of holiday cheer. The hot, spiced apple cider was also quite good. We heard various live musicians performing everything from modern rock to Native American flute to classical. And just like that, it was 8 PM and we raced to the cars to get to Salute.
We arrived at Desert Ridge Mall and parked. They parking lot was jammed with last minute holiday shoppers, but we secured a place rather quickly and walked to the restaurant. We had to wait a few moments before being seated. We were taken to a large round table that could have easily sat seven people, so there was plenty of space to spread out. We were handed menus and told our waiter would be with us shortly.
A few minutes passed and our server appeared taking our drink order. Three had Iced Tea ($3.00 each) and two of us had Diet Cokes ($3.00 each). He said he would return but that bread and water were on the way. Sure enough, the bread and water arrived. The bread was small slices of Italian bread that had been buttered and sprinkled with a mixture of herbs, garlic and some course black pepper. It had a chewy crust and a soft interior and was a table favorite, so much so that we polished off around six baskets over the course of the evening.
We then began to review the menu and I grew a bit concerned because the prices on the menu were significantly higher than what I saw on the website. I later discovered the website hadn’t been updated in quite some time. So, there was a moment or two of sticker shock.
When are drinks arrived, we were ready to order. Anthony immediately spoke up and ordered the Fried Calamari ($12.00). J. and I went for the Filet Carpaccio ($11.00). For our meals, Anthony would follow his squid with the Chicken Fettuccine Alfredo with Asparagus ($17.00). Madge is not much of a veal eater, so we were all caught off guard when she ordered the Veal Canneloni Special ($19.00). Boris went for the Manicotti ($17.00). I wanted something pure comfort, so I ordered the Lasagna ($16.00). J. loves gnocchi, so I wasn’t surprised to see the Gnocchi Pomodoro ($16.00) get ordered.
We sat and reviewed all of our photos from the Luminaria festival and talked about what a great time we had. That passed the time until Anthony’s Fried Calamari arrived. The plate was packed full of the little rings of squid. They were served with a bowl of marinara sauce and a half lemon that had been wrapped in a mesh to keep the seeds at bay. Anthony offered some to all, but only J. took up the offer. I have never been a fan of calamari, so I deferred to Anthony and J. to let us know how it was. Unfortunately, there were two very different opinions about it. J. said it just “okay” and complained that the rings were cut too thick and the breading could have been much more crisp. Anthony, on the other hand, said he adored the dish and thought it was “expertly done.”
J. and I were very pleased when we saw the Filet Carpaccio arrive. Large, thin slices of filet had been “cooked” in lemon juice and set on a large plate. A pile of arugula was set in the middle and then large shavings of Parmesan cheese were leaned up against the greens. Capers were added to the dish for a salty flavor and a bit of color. We each took a bite and it was stellar. J. and I loved the dish. Others warily took bites and said it was good, but I don’t think they could get by the fact that the filet had been cooked with acid instead of heat. But J. and I loved the dish. It was incredibly fresh and the meat was fantastic.
J. and I had just finished our carpaccio when another basket of bread and our salads arrived. The salads were straight forward. Mixed greens were tossed with shavings of red cabbage and then dressed with a very understated vinaigrette. A tomato wedge sat on the side of the plate. There was nothing earthshaking here, but it was a simple presentation and palate cleanser that was welcome after a rich appetizer.
J.’s Gnocchi was the first entree to arrive at the table. We were all floored by the size of the dish. It was enormous. There were approximately 30 potato dumplings on the plate, all covered with a tomato-basil sauce. The scent was heavenly and the addition of some freshly grated cheese on top only made it that much better. The nuggets of pasta were light and fluffy and hot. I initially thought that their size might make them a bit doughy, but they were wonderfully tender. This was just a wonderful plate of gnocchi.
Anthony’s Chicken Fettuccine Alfredo was a large plate of pasta with the traditional Alfredo cream sauce and several asparagus spears. I also noticed that the chicken in the dish was in large strips that had been char-broiled. Anthony said the dish was delicious and noted the cream sauce was not overly thick and raved about the kitchen not being shy about cheese in the sauce or on the dish itself. From my viewpoint, it did look quite good.
Madge’s Veal Cannelloni looked quite scrumptious from across the table. Like Madge, I am not a particular veal fan, but the presentation, preparation, and aroma of this dish could have tempted me enough to order it. Two large shells were packed full of seasoned ground veal. This was covered in a rich bechamel sauce and then, for an added taste and some color, a strip of marinara sauce was spooned over the two rolls of pasta. Madge said her meal was fantastic and loved the contrast between the two sauces.
Boris’ Manicotti was similar in size and shape as Madge’s dish, but Boris stuck with just a simple cheese manicotti production. I could see the steam rising off of his plate and I thought the tomato cream sauce was attractive. Boris loved the fact the shells were packed with plenty of cheese and lots of sauce had been put over the pasta. Madge said she thought the manicotti was excellent and would try that if she returned to Salute.
When I got my Lasagna, I was surprised because the casserole seemed to be sitting next to a puddle of meat sauce. But I was pleased to discover that the sauce was actually covering up a good third of the lasagna, so I got to try the pasta with the sauce and without it. I preferred it with the sauce. Both the lasagna and the sauce were delicious. The lasagna had plenty of layers with lots of cheese and a smattering of sausage. The meat sauce was hearty and had a slightly spicy side to it that really played will off the mild cheese. The portion itself was more than enough and although I cleaned my plate, I was pleasantly full from the meal.
We got one last basket of bread and sopped up the remaining traces of our sauces. We passed on dessert and requested our bill. The total was $132.96 which included tax. Considering the portion size and how much we enjoyed our meals, we felt that this was a decent value. The service was professional and attentive, and our waiter was more than patient with our constant requests for bread.
As we returned to our vehicles, I surveyed the group and the consensus was that Salute was very good. We had all had better Italian food in our lives, but we would not hesitate to return to Salute in the future. So, we departed and J. and I talked about what a wonderful night it was with the cold air, the luminarias and the fine dinner.
Not a bad way to celebrate the holidays.
Salute Restorante Italiano
21001 North Tatum Boulevard
Phoenix, AZ 85050
Dress: Business Casual
Notes: Located in the Desert Ridge Mall. There is a second location at 13261 North 7th Street in Phoenix.
Website: www.saluteaz.com (horribly outdated)
Additional photos can be found at www.feastinginphoenix.com