'GHETTI YUP!

Pasta Works seems to be a place you bring kids. Several tables of parents or grandparents are here with their young wards tonight. Interestingly, a comparison of menus indicates that kiddies eat cheaper at Spaghetti Vendors: $2.50 versus $3.95 to $4.25 at Pasta Works. Either money isn't important to these caretakers, or wine and beer are. But wait, here come our entrees. White-blanketed lasagna primavera leaves us speechless. One taste is all it takes to peg this thing macaroni and cheese casserole with cream of something soup ladled over it. That is, if the cream of something happens to have mixed vegetables like cubed carrots and peas in it. Quite simply, this is the ghastliest interpretation of "primavera"--"spring," in Italian!--I've ever had the misfortune to eat.

Amazingly, spaghetti with pesto sauce is also dull, though certainly better than the lasagna. The pesto is crunchy with pine nuts and cheesy with Parmesan, but ultimately bland. The spaghetti is pleasant and thinner than the fat noodles I expected. But, let's put it this way, I wouldn't order it again.

Soft drinks cost $1, but that entitles you to "free refills." My accomplice is very conscientious about getting his money's worth. On returning with his second glass of root beer, he notes, "There, now it's only 50 cents a glass." We eat what we can and pack what is left of the spaghetti into Styrofoam to take home with us. We do our best to leave all memories of the "lasagna a la king" behind.

The third pasta joint, Ziti's Pasta Gallery, is a full-service restaurant. In addition to pasta, they serve seafood, chicken, veal, beef and pork. They offer a wine list and full range of cocktail beverages. They also have a gimmick.

Every table at Ziti's is covered with white butcher paper. Crayons are furnished as well. You supply the artistic talent, and judging by what's been saved in Ziti's "gallery"--there's plenty to be found, of varying degrees, in the East Valley.

Neither my dining accomplice nor I can resist the invitation to draw. (Must have been those years of art lessons.) We grab our favorite Crayolas and begin immortalizing each other on the table covering. Our waitress is impressed. "Oh, you're both artists," she coos, as she delivers our fried calamari. I bet she says that to everybody.

I pause in my portraiture long enough to try a few of the fried calamari sticks. You know, it had to happen: First there was fried zucchini, then fried mushrooms, and now, fried calamari sticks. Breaded with Italian seasoning, deep-fried and white on the inside, they could be made of any kind of compressed seafood. I honestly can't tell what they are, because they taste like nothing. But they are convenient for scooping up the tomato sauce that accompanies them. Our next course is no better. Italian bread sticks can't compete with (gulp) Olive Garden's. As these cool down, they grow tougher. Obviously they've been nuked. Minestrone is watered down and strictly Campbell's.

I hate it when restaurants pile shredded mozzarella cheese on your salad without asking you. Like, maybe I'm watching my cholesterol, you know? But it really doesn't matter. The very plain iceberg salad is tiresome. I leave it and return to my sketch. On the night we visit, the other guests at Ziti's Pasta Gallery fall into two distinct categories: very young people on dates and retired couples out for a meal. That puts the average age at forty, but there are no forty-year-olds here tonight.

Happily, our entrees arrive and they look pretty good. Baked ziti is large and hot and gooey with red sauce, mozzarella and ricotta. It's haphazardly assembled and ordinary looking, tasty but not special.

Vermicelli with sausage, peppers and onions is pleasant, thanks to julienne vegetables that are still slightly crisp. The pasta is al dente, but the sliced sausage is too mealy and mild to matter much. By the end of the meal, I'm feeling pretty jolly--thanks mostly to the crayons. I've finished my portrait and begun a still life of water glass and Chianti bottle. It's going very well. I'm in such a good mood that, after I ask to take the remaining ziti home, I spring for dessert.

I should have quit while I was ahead. Cookies and cream tartufo is awful. It looks like a chocolate-coated breast and tastes like an Eskimo Pie. I never do find the crushed cookie in this thing. The inside is coffee colored and conceals a frozen cherry. Worse yet, it's decorated with dabs of aerosol whipped cream and a maraschino cherry. This is no tartufo, this is a joke.

I don't know how you earn a spot on the wall in Ziti's Pasta Gallery, but I'm hoping one of us will. Maybe my portrait and still life can't match the "Spandex Hippie Rockers" sketch in the bar, but they're at least as good as some of the colorings dedicated "To Daddy" from Jason, or Adam.

You see? It works. The crayons-and-paper gimmick is a real hook for kids and other arrested individuals like myself. Unfortunately, the food and service are no better than adequate.

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