Dining | Fresco al Fresco: With summer winding down, a visit to Fresco’s courtyard patio is a must. 

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In the waning days of summer, there are few places I’d rather be than dining al fresco in the beautiful patio courtyard of Fresco Italian Café. So, why did I wait until so late in the summer do to so? Well, life has a way of leaving you in the dust from time to time, so it’s important to stop and smell the flowers—which is something you can literally still do at Fresco before winter rears its chilly head.

It had been a few years and a few chefs since I’d last visited this postage-stamp-size gem of a restaurant. Lane Pellinger, Todd Mark Miller, David Derfel, R.J. Peterson, David Jones—those are a few of the talented chefs who’ve plied their trade at Fresco in recent years. Now it’s chef Billy Sotelo and his creative team filling the compact Fresco kitchen. One of the delights of dining al fresco at Fresco is that when someone sears lamb in the kitchen, the wonderful aromas waft out onto the patio, providing customers with an olfactory glimpse of what’s to come.

And what’s to come can be very, very satisfying to the palate, although there have been glitches. During a recent dinner at Fresco, a City Weekly colleague who was also dining on the patio that night—and who is a very regular Fresco customer—stopped by our table on his way out. “You cannot possibly be eating that!” he said. He was pointing to an otherwise spectacular dish that had been marred by over-salting: corn risotto with freshly shaved black truffles and seared Diver scallops ($34). My friend was correct; it was too salty. But upon further inspection I determined that it was the scallops alone, probably before they were seared, that someone had had a heavy sodium hand with. The rest of the risotto was delicious.

At any rate, I made sure that word about the salt got back to the kitchen, hoping to help improve the dish for future customers. It appears to have worked, because on a return visit with friends, we shared close to a dozen different Fresco dishes, and nary a one was overseasoned. It’s something to remember about your own dining experiences and issues: Cooks usually appreciate informed feedback, and the good ones take it to heart, as seems to be the case at Fresco. So to my City Weekly colleague: It’s safe to come back to your favorite restaurant.

Tuna crudo ($12) at Fresco is naturally salty and a wonderful appetizer. It’s chopped raw sushi-grade tuna formed into a cylinder and wrapped with white anchovy (that’s the salty part), dabbed with chili oil and served with a crispy pesto crostini. My only beef was that the crudo only comes with one thin crostini, which looks nice on the plate but two or three would have been more generous. An amuse bouche of ricotta-stuffed squash blossom and saba was sensational with a glass of Bisol Jeio Brut Prosecco, followed by an equally delightful eggplant tartlet ($10), created by sous chef Lya Luna. Garlic-and-herb-roasted eggplant is topped with fresh, creamy buffalo mozzarella, cherry tomatoes and basil for a super summertime starter. Yet another snappy summer treat at Fresco is the chilled fresh pea soup ($10) infused with onion and bacon, topped with finely julienned mint and tarragon.

Table service at Fresco has never been better. Consider yourself especially lucky if you happen to sit at one of Bobbi’s tables. And the recent addition of James Santangelo as sommelier and all-around table-hopper adds a spark of energy and enthusiasm to the overall Fresco dining experience, not to mention a great wine resource. After working up at Stein’s in Deer Valley and at the Metropolitan, Santangelo did some time as sommelier in an Atlantic City casino where he earned the name “Jimmy Utah” from co-workers and pit bosses. He’s a hoot.

Back to dinner. Black squid-ink ravioli ($14) stuffed with fresh ricotta and a scrumptious pomodoro sauce is terrific. So is the rosemary/sea-salt butter served with Fresco’s bread. You’ll want to use every last bit of the bread to sop up that perfect pomodoro. Another great entrée—a pan-seared airline cut of chicken—is finished off in the oven to keep it moist and tender and served with pearl pasta (about the size of BBs), artichokes, roasted tomatoes and arugula. Try it with a very economically priced bottle ($50) of Guigal Hermitage Blanc.

After two trips and many items sampled, my cohorts and I all agreed that the dish you don’t want to miss at Fresco is the seared Morgan Valley lamb loin ($24), cooked medium-rare and served with a mound of creamy garlic-chive mashed potatoes, fava beans, wild mushrooms and rosemary jus. Close behind in second were the medallions of seared ahi tuna on angel hair pasta with a zippy puttanesca sauce.

I know it’s a cliché, but do save room for dessert. Pastry chef Melissa Phillips hits it out of the park with her Robiola cheesecake, for those who like their cheesecake a little on the stinky side. Her fresh sorbets and gelatos are equally wonderful, and the goat-cheese panna cotta ($8) is out of this world. A shared bottle of Yalumba Botrytis Viognier 2006 rounds out an al fresco evening at Fresco deliciously. Romantic interludes optional.

FRESCO ITALIAN CAFÉ 1513 S. 1500 East, 486-1300, Dinner nightly from 5 p.m.

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