For all intents and purposes, downtown Scottsdale is shuttered and desolate on a recent Wednesday night — except on Stetson Drive, where drivers circle warily looking for a spot before finally surrendering their cars to the valets.
The sudden gridlock centers on Cowboy Ciao, even on a weeknight.
The main room, redolent in red and cowboy kitsch, is buzzing but we’re led to another section, complete with heavy drapes on tracks that lend it an ugly-stepchild “expansion room” vibe. The art by our table is a framed rendering of Clint Eastwood as the outlaw Josey Wales and a lone cherub wall shelf — a halfhearted effort, considering the restaurant’s reputation for blending the rawhide and the rococo.
The frontier/Italian theme extends into the menu, where chipotle peppers insinuate themselves into aioli and linguine is served with arugula, pecorino … and steak tips.
The woman who takes our beverage order is so casually personable, we assume she’s an errant hostess with a few spare minutes on her hands. But she is indeed our server and her laid-back demeanor and lilting voice belie her familiarity with the dishes.
The Stetson Chopped salad ($12) arrives with its ingredients arranged in a linear fashion: first salmon, then pearl barley, arugula, chopped mushrooms, air-dried corn and tomatoes. Adrienne drizzles it with dressing and mixes it at the table and the result is delicious — the salmon is full of flavor but doesn’t overwhelm the other ingredients.
The Buffalo Carpaccio ($12) is also layered: ultrathin slices of seared buffalo with bruschetta, goat cheese and red onion honey marmalade. The meat lends no taste, only chilled texture, to the multitiered end result, and I enjoy the dish more when I savor each component individually — not a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.
The Elk Strip Loin ($32), grilled medium-rare, arrives perfectly tender and without a hint of gaminess, thanks to the cabernet demiglace. The companion mushroom risotto more than holds its own, too.
The Stuffed Pork Rib Chop ($25) is sweet, although the stuffing is a little too sauced, which leaves it soggy. The ancho bread pudding, raisin/fig compote and vegetables help us forget about that.
We love the dessert Bread Pudding … except for the bread pudding itself. The spongey apple confection may be designed to absorb flavor, not exude it, but except for the cranberries this version is downright bland. We instead dig our spoons only into the companion bourbon/praline sauce and cinnamon ice cream and joke about how the pudding needs to go to Europe for six months to “find itself and come back fully formed.”
Luckily, Adrienne has saved the day with her dessert wine selections: A sauvignon blanc/Semillon that we love instantly, and a 15-year malmsey Madeira rich with chocolatey tones that grows on us with each spoonful of sugary dessert sauce.
By the time we pay the check and wander out, 2 1/2 hours have passed. There’s a definite unhurried atmosphere to the restaurant, which allows you to linger at the table without hurry — but also means drinks and courses arrive so slowly that we clock them on our cell phones to pass the time at our empty table.
Cowboy Ciao hangs its 10-gallon hat on casual kitsch, from the butcher paper that covers the tablecloths to the mural of cherubs pulling back trompe l’oeil drapes. But it’s also the sort of joint where a request for water elicits “still or sparkling?” and the tab for two tops out at $100 before drinks, so some people might expect prompter service and a not so tongue-in-cheek atmosphere. How much you enjoy the overall experience depends on how well you stomach large portions of irony with your food, good as it may be.
Just the facts
7133 E. Stetson Drive, Scottsdale
(480) 946-3111 or cowboyciao.com
Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. daily; dinner 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Dinner prices: Salads $6-$15, appetizers $5-$16, entrees $22-$32, desserts $7-$9