'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.

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.

In other words, if you're looking for a safe, non-Italian Italian restaurant, Ziti's Pasta Gallery is your place. If you're looking for good spaghetti, look elsewhere.

Spaghetti Vendors, 8989 East Via Linda, Scottsdale, 391-0131. Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Saturday; 4 to 9 p.m., Sunday.

Pasta Works, 6949 East Shea, Scottsdale, 948-3098. Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday.

Ziti's Pasta Gallery, 1706 East Warner, Tempe, 491-2505. Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday; 5:30 to 9 p.m., Sunday.

anywhere

If the strands stuck to the wall, some former roommate had told you, the spaghetti was "done."

pasta works

One taste is all it takes to peg this thing macaroni and cheese casserole with cream of something soup ladled over it.

ziti's

By the end of the meal, I've finished my portrait and begun a still life of water glass and Chianti bottle.

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