'GHETTI YUP!

Before durum wheat noodles were called "pasta," before we'd ever heard of "carbo loading," there was an American family favorite called "spaghetti." Spaghetti was spaghetti. There was only one thickness. You bought it at the supermarket in long boxes and dropped it into boiling water to cook. Then, you'd fish a strand or two from the churning pot and throw them against the wall. If the strands stuck, some former roommate had told you, the spaghetti was "done."

There was only one way to serve spaghetti--smothered in red sauce. For variety, you could add hamburger meatballs or Italian sausage. A shake of Parmesan cheese from a green cylindrical container and some crushed red pepper, and it was perfect. Remember?

How far we've progressed since those ancient times.
In the last decade we've witnessed a proliferation of pasta: fresh, imported, colored. We've also seen a dramatic increase in restaurants purporting to be pasta specialists. Some try to be high-end. Others, like the ones below, attempt to offer a more reasonably priced product. These new-breed pasta houses are easy to spot because "pasta" is usually part of the name. Unless, of course, you're talking about Spaghetti Vendors.

There are two Spaghetti Vendors in the Valley. Both serve fresh, homemade pasta. Both are located in upscale North Scottsdale. A dining accomplice and I visit the Via Linda branch, on Pima just north of the new UA Cinema complex. It is located in a busy, burgeoning commercial area.

The clean little pasta shop smells marvelous inside. We order at the counter, then take a seat at one of the white tables with plastic chairs. Our food is delivered by a server who knows which order is ours by the number on our table.

My accomplice notices a portrait of a kind-looking, gray-haired woman above the kitchen entrance. "She looks familiar," he says. Sure enough, it's Mama Celeste, queen of pizza. It seems her sons Willie and Patrick Lizio opened Spaghetti Vendors here in Arizona in 1987.

Personally, I'm very glad they did. I've been looking for a place like this. If there was a Spaghetti Vendors in my neighborhood, I'd be there on all my nights off. Of course, not everything makes perfect sense here. Take our antipasto, for instance. It contains some delicious rolled mortadella/pepperoni/salami and provolone, green olive salad and pepperoncini, but also includes a cold tri-colored rotini salad.

"Isn't this redundant?" my accomplice wonders aloud. "Why is there pasta salad in the antipasto?" He's right to be confused. It isn't usual. Since the plate is large, I theorize that some people order the antipasto as a cold entree.

Accordingly, we are not even close to finishing it when our real pasta arrives. Need I tell you we have ordered a lot? Three giant stuffed Florentine shells look and smell divine. They are filled with ricotta cheese and spinach, and topped with tomato sauce and mozzarella.

Linguini with red clam sauce is a tad salty, but flavorful and zesty. The clams, though chopped, resemble clams, not rubber bands. The crushed tomato sauce they inhabit is slightly spicy--a pleasant surprise. Finally, spinach cappelini with garlic and oil (aglio e olio) is fragile, green--and other than tasting of over-toasted garlic--too bland to get excited about.

We receive two baskets of warm bread with our meal. The bread is more a hybrid of French and Italian than true Italian bread, but I like it.

I also like that, though the setting is informal, the silverware and tableware used are real--not plastic. Our pasta comes in large, festive bowls like the ones I use at home, and a large twirling spoon sits at every place setting. If you're like me, you'll need it.

We leave the restaurant carrying many take-home containers.

For some men, "mama's boy" are fightin' words, but it's my guess that Willie and Patrick Lizio might take this sobriquet as a compliment. With Spaghetti Vendors, they've given their successful mama one more reason to be proud.

Pasta Works, another self-serve pasta restaurant in chichi North Scottsdale, is a whole 'nother story. Whereas Spaghetti Vendors is tiny and homey, like a family-run deli; Pasta Works is sterile and impersonal, like a cafeteria. It reminds me of Ponderosa Steak House more than anything else.

Yep, I hate this place. Prices are higher than at Spaghetti Vendors (by $2 to $3 a dish), the choice of fresh pastas is limited (three versus ten kinds) and they don't offer antipasto. Of course, they do serve wine, beer and cocktails--which Spaghetti Vendors does not--but so what? The food's lousy.

That said, let me get specific for you. After we place our order at the counter and find a table, a waitress brings us our "all-you-can-eat" salad. Served in a black plastic bowl, the iceberg and leaf lettuce salad is pink-edged and tired looking. Two pepperoncini, a pair of cherry tomatoes, three black olives and a ring of Bermuda onion do little to cheer up this fading greenery. Neither does a harsh creamy Italian dressing, served in a bowl.

In similar fashion, a bowl of Italian wedding soup is also underwhelming. Pink meatballs lie submerged beneath chicken stock laced with dark greens and tiny pastina. I leave half. Buttery garlic bread is salty, but "good enough"--as my accomplice puts it.

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