One of the biggest complaints I hear from people about the Phoenix-metro eating scene is that many restaurants take up residence in old or small strip malls. The notion is that if a restaurant is in a strip mall, it probably isn’t very good. While that may be true in other parts of the country, I have found many good restaurants that are small in size, but big on taste and are usually in some small, dingy or old strip mall that could use a new facade or a coat of paint.
A couple of week ago, I had a birthday and Neil and Dave wanted to take me out for dinner. It was my choice on where to dine, but I know that Neil and Dave tend to be finicky eaters, so I threw out some suggestions. Italian is always a good choice, so I told Dave and Neil about a restaurant I heard about on Union Hills Drive in North Phoenix. While the drive was substantial, we wanted to try someplace new and I couldn’t pass up a place with the name Ninetta’s Passion Bistro.
Near 7th Street and Union Hills, we pulled into the strip mall and found Ninetta’s Passion Bistro near the northeast corner of the strip mall, right near some place called Dragon Bowl. We parked near the front and walked in.
The place was quite large inside, but there were only a couple of tables occupied. Instantaneously, a middle-aged man jumped up from one of the tables and bounded to the door to greet us. He welcomed us and went for humor route when he said he would see if he could find an open table for us. He then led us to a table against the far wall. We sat down and he handed us menus and told us that since it was the St. Patrick’s Day season, they were serving Corned Beef and Cabbage. We declined but he told us of some other specials and then warned us that items on the menu are made to order so it would take time for our food to arrive.
He departed and a server arrived with water and ran down the specials again and suggested a few items off the menu. He took our drink order of two Diet Cokes ($2.00 each) and one Iced Tea ($2.00) and said he would be back with the drinks momentarily. We all reviewed the menu which was fairly small, but did offer something for every taste.
Our server returned with our drinks as well as a small basket of pita triangles and a small dish of a grainy-looking, reddish spread to go on the bread. He informed us it was a “tomato hummus.” We all scurried for pieces of the pita and dipped them into the hummus. The bread was fresh, hot and slightly crusty from the heat. It was soft but still chewy and had a great taste. The hummus was very interesting in that it was a lot lighter than I expected. It had a pleasing earthy taste to it, but a bit of sweetness from the tomatoes. Due to the lightness of the flavor, it didn’t overwhelm the bread.
We then placed our orders. We couldn’t resist the Proscuitto-Wrapped Mozzarella Ball ($14.95). I decided to also have a Caesar Salad ($5.95) and Dave wanted to try the Italian Wedding Soup ($5.95). For our entrees, Neil went with the Spaghetti Bolognese ($13.95), while I had the Chicken Fettucini Alfredo ($13.95) and Dave had the Chicken Parmesan ($14.95). After placing our order, the owner (the same gentleman who seated us), suggested we get another appetizer in addition to the Mozzarella Ball. He ran down a list of options and then suggested a White Pizza ($14.95) which we all jumped at upon mention.
After our server left to place our order, Dave and Neil mentioned some of the decorations in the restaurant. We all loved the lighted bunches of grapes that were hung around the restaurant. The interior was very comfortable with lots of framed art works and touches of Italy here and there.
About 10 minutes passed and our Proscuitto-Wrapped Mozzarella Ball arrived. It was a work of beauty with the wrapped ball sitting amidst slices of Roma tomatoes and then drizzled with a balsamic vinegar reduction. There was really no gracious way of splitting this up, so I dove in and sliced it into pieces. The entire offering was the epitome of freshness. The cheese was fantastic and the proscuitto thinly sliced and salty. The tomatoes were delicious and firm from skin to interior. The reduction was amazingly sweet. We all raved about this appetizer and gobbled it up in minutes.
My Caesar Salad followed the appetizer with our waiter saying that the pizza would be out shortly. He also said Dave’s soup was still cooking and would be at the table as soon as possible. The salad was the standard preparation of a Caesar salad, although I did like the fact the Caesar dressing was creamy and had an underlying sweet side that played well against the saltiness of the Parmesan cheese. The Romain lettuce bites were crisp and cold. The croutons were very good as well, but I would have preferred a few more. Overall, a good production.
I was just finishing up my salad when Dave’s Italian Wedding Soup arrived. I had to do a double take because I had never seen Italian Wedding Soup like Dave’s. What struck me was that it was – for lack of a better term – bountiful. I rarely eat or order Italian Wedding Soup because every time I have had it, it seems like nothing more than some stock, a few nuggets of carrot and a couple of pieces of pasta for good measure. Oh, and a bay leaf may be thrown in if the cook is being generous. But this was different.
The soup looked almost pureed on some level, but I could see a rich broth, big chunks of carrots, lots of pasta, and, meatballs. Lots of mini-meatballs. The top was sprinkled with grated Parmesan cheese and chopped parsley. Dave took a taste and I asked him how it was. “Absolutely fantastic,” he said. “Incredible.” He offered me a bite which included one of the meatballs. “Absolutely fantastic” was a bit of an understatement. This was sublime. The broth was very rich and thick and the carrots and pasta were not cooked to a mushy mess. The meatballs were outstanding. This was what Italian Wedding Soup should be, instead of the watery concoction I am used to.
As Dave finished his soup, our server arrived with our White Pizza. We were immediately hit with a wave of garlic aroma. The cheese on the pizza was still bubbling and the crust was slightly charred. We each grabbed a slice and the slices were loaded with plenty of ricotta and mozzarella cheese, garlic and olive oil. Peeking out between the crust and the cheeses were plenty of fresh basil leaves. The crust had an interesting rough texture that gave it a rustic feel. The pizza was a big success with all of us because they didn’t skimp on the cheeses and it was clearly made to order. Dave said it was the best white pizza he had ever had in his life.
After a relaxing respite, our entrees began to arrive. Neil’s Spaghetti Bolognese was a substantial portion of spaghetti that had been tossed with a hearty meat sauce and then served with sausage and very large meatball. Neil said his dish was “very good” and loved the portion size as well as the sauce and meatball. To be honest, I don’t remember him mentioning the sausage or even seeing it on the entree itself. However, I did try a bite of the meatball and it was excellent. I particularly loved the seasoning which saved the meatball from just being bland. The sauce also got a thumbs up from me mostly because it was quite complex and fresh.
Dave’s Chicken Parmesan was also substantial in size. The pounded chicken breast had been lightly coated and sauteed and then covered with tomato sauce and cheese. It was served with a side of penne pasta with Marinara sauce and some steamed carrots and Chinese broccoli. Dave said the chicken was very moist and tender and loved the sauce and cheese. He did note that for his taste, he preferred to have the breading on the chicken a bit thicker and crispier. He said the pasta was perfectly al dente. Dave is not a big veggie fan, but Neil said the carrots were good. I have to give credit to the kitchen for being a bit daring in the use of Chinese broccoli instead of the typical broccoli spears.
My Chicken Fettucini Alfredo was gigantic in portion size. After the appetizer, salad and pizza, I knew I would be taking most of this home. The pasta itself was cooked exactly as it should have been. The cream sauce was superb. The ingredients within the sauce were proportioned in such a way that one did not overpower the taste of the others. It was just an excellent sauce. The chicken was exceptional, and I was pretty convinced by the end of the meal that the chicken had been brined before cooking. The whole dish just exuded freshness and Dave and Neil agreed that it was an incredible preparation and the best entree on the table.
Our server returned and we requested take-out boxes for our leftovers. He asked if we would like to see a dessert menu and we all fidgeted in our seats and let out a collective groan as we knew we couldn’t have handled dessert. Instead, we request our bill.
Our server arrived with our bill, but also brought a plate containing a large slice of Cheesecake (gratis) and three forks. We all offered another collective groan, but we didn’t want to appear rude by turning it down. We took a bite and our groans turned to smiles and happy thoughts. Our stomachs be damned. The cheesecake was just as top notch as the rest of our meal. It was creamy and luscious, but it had a wonderful grainy texture that suggested it was made on site. The strawberries served with it were bright red and sweet. Somehow, we managed to find room and polished off the cheesecake.
The total for the bill was $100.20, which included tax. We all thought it was a good value considering the freshness of the meals and the fact that everything was pretty much cooked to order. The service was excellent. Everyone was attentive and very interactive. The owner was very nice in stopping by to make sure we were having a good time and he mentioned that his wife does most of the cooking in the kitchen.
We departed Ninetta’s Passion Bistro and as we left, the owner invited us back and thanked us profusely for dropping by. I knew I would be back in the future because this turned out to be a wonderful birthday dinner and a great Italian meal.
So, can we finally put to rest the notion that a restaurant in a strip mall automatically means bad food?
Ninetta’s Passion Bistro
814 East Union Hills Drive
Phoenix, AZ 85024
Hours: Tuesday through Friday – 11 AM to 2 PM and 5 PM to 10 PM; Saturday – 5 PM to 10 PM; Closed Sunday and Monday.
Notes: In the northeast corner of the strip mall at 8th Street and Union Hills Drive. 50% off all Wines by the Bottle on Tuesdays.