TOWN WITHOUT ZITI

Ever find yourself waxing nostalgic for that neighborhood spaghetti joint back wherever you came from? The one where you didn't have to worry about how you were dressed? Where they served all your favorites, like baked ziti, stuffed shells, manicotti, lasagna? Where service was casual but good, and melting candles in Chianti bottles stood on every red-and-white checkered tablecloth?

You're not alone. Hey, recently I've begun to speak fondly of those silly plastic grapes that hang from the fake arbor ceilings at places like Aunt Josie's in Syracuse, New York. The funny thing is, not too long ago I despised such kitsch.

But that's what happens as we grow older. We start losing it. Rich Melman and Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, the people behind Tucchetti, know this. They know all of us born-in-the-Forties-and-Fifties types are getting a little soft in the noggin, not to mention the taste buds. They're counting on it. That's why they have the guts and imagination to attempt Tucchetti: a re-creation of the mom-and-pop warehouse Italian restaurant from some idealized yesteryear, complete with checkered tablecloths, mismatched chairs and Chianti-bottle candles. Yes, even those silly plastic grapes for suckers like me.

The idea is to overwhelm us with atmosphere. To make it so darn much fun just to be at Tucchetti that the food becomes a second consideration, the cost of admission. I can almost hear the disclaimers: "Oh, no one really goes there to eat. It's just so cute."

Well, I go to restaurants to eat. Always have, always will. Which makes it especially tough to review Tucchetti. Because the place is cute, but the food--with a couple of exceptions--is awful. But let me say this at the outset: Maybe I'm just not a theme-restaurant kind of person. Though I like the looks of, say, Ed Debevic's, co-created by Melman and Lee Cohen of Phoenix's Big 4 Restaurants, Inc., I do not feel comfortable entering into the improvisational theatre of the absurd with which one must deal simply to order a cheeseburger and shake. Keep the Fonz away from me and quit snapping your gum. As I said, that's me. I realize there are others who just love this kind of place--despite its mediocre food.

The uninvolved, just-doing-my-job attitude of the waitstaff especially bothers me at these restaurants. Peel away the costumes and they have the cold hearts of service people who work in a high-volume, computerized precheck, "What else do they want?" corporate chain. There's no real care involved, because, after all, they're just play-acting at being waiters in a mom-and-pop Italian place or old-fashioned diner. It doesn't really matter to them if the food is good or not--that's the manager's, the chef's, the corporation's problem. This is just a job to provide them the income to make their car and tuition payments. Something to do between dates and school.

Do I sound upset?
I am. Here are a few reasons: I don't like to see my waitress pulling plastic wrap from my fresh-from-the-cooler house salad on her way to the table--especially when I'm paying extra for it. I don't like so-called "very thin-crusted pizzas" that use flour tortillas as their base; if I want a quesadilla, I'll order one at a Mexican restaurant, thank you. I don't like tomato sauce on my salty pesto spaghetti. I don't like stuffed shells topped with bland cream sauce. I don't like lukewarm thin spaghetti served to me as "angel hair pasta." Finally, I don't like mushy, overcooked lasagna.

I could go on, but I won't. You get the idea.
Actually, there are a few things I like about Tucchetti. As I said earlier, the look of the place is very appealing. I like the short, stemless glasses used to serve wine. I like the layout and design of the menu. I like the corny Moonstruck soundtrack.

On the food side, Tucchetti's desserts are generous and above average. I like the huge bread pudding served with caramel sauce, the brandy-and-espresso-soaked tiramisu cake, the ample serving of sweet raspberry ice. But that, I'm afraid, is it.

Tucchetti could be a great place. The prices are low, the atmosphere is lively and fun, the Camelback-corridor location is perfect. Unfortunately, until the quality of the food and service improve, it is just a well-set stage waiting for the right actors and edible props to fill it.

So, the question remains: Where do you go to find the real thing? A real down-home Italian restaurant where the food is not only cheap, but good? Where they know the meaning of red sauce and pasta e fagioli?

God knows it's taken me long enough to locate such a place. But I think I've finally found what I've been searching for at Giuseppe's Italian Kitchen in the ABCO plaza at 28th Street and Indian School.

Giuseppe's is a simple place. It's tiny and friendly and the staff greets nearly all its customers by name. Though a sign requests you to order at the counter, both times a dining accomplice and I stop by for an early dinner, the congenial woman behind the counter tells us to sit, then comes and takes our order. She's the kind of waitress of whom you can ask, "Which should I have, the stuffed shells or the manicotti?" and she'll say, "Well, they're both good, but my personal favorite is the man-i-got-ti." I love it.

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