THE MARINARA-GO-ROUND

What do you call a neighborhood Italian joint featuring friendly service, good value and solid, occasionally outstanding food?

These days I'd call it a miracle.
The old-fashioned family Italian restaurant seems to be going the way of the family farm. Now, recipes get their first tests in the accounting department, portions are measured to machine-tool specifications and high-priced consultants scrutinize every aspect of the decor except the height of the men's-room urinals.

But although endangered, the yeoman Italian-restaurant owner isn't extinct. Here in the Valley we visited three neighborhood places that made us consider changing neighborhoods. At first, Grandinetti's Pasta House & Bar looks a bit too upscale for a local hangout. There's some statuary, arches with inlaid brick and several small rooms and alcoves. In an odd twist for a neighborhood restaurant, those areas are reserved for adults. Come with kids and you're sentenced to a front-room Siberia just inside the door. Siberia here is not just a figure of speech. The place is cooled to the same temperature as the penguin house at the San Diego Zoo.

But the service is so warm, and the food so appealingly homey, that our initial reserve quickly melted.

All meals come with soup and salad. In fact, our waiter brought the evening's bean soup before we even ordered. When he returned and saw my kid's empty bowl, he asked her if she wanted another.

The kids wheedled us into ordering garlic bread. Grandinetti's version was worth the two bucks. Thick hunks of Italian bread arrived slathered with melted cheese and lots of garlic and basil. It more than made up for the rather ordinary salads.

Except for the spaghetti and linguini, Grandinetti's makes all its own pasta. After a few bites, if I closed my eyes, I'd have sworn I was back in Little Italy. The pasta's that good.

Linguini with clam sauce carried a heaping pile of tender clams, fragrant with herbs. In case the clam sauce-linguini ratio got out of whack, the waiter provided a small pitcher of extra sauce.

Veal tortellini, a special that night, was superb. Tasty tortellini came stuffed with seasoned ground veal and cheese, and the rich Alfredo sauce brought out the delicate flavor without smothering it. Like all the dishes, the portion was huge.

The ravioli and lasagna also had major league quality. Half a dozen doughy ravioli squares in a light red sauce were good enough to have one kid balk at handing me my customary tithe. The lasagna was thick, cheesy and incredibly filling.

As we downed our meals, Papa Grandinetti came by to chat. An untied red apron flapped over his ample belly, testament to his culinary prowess and 18 years in business.

He brought over some toys for the kids and a couple of freebie brownies he'd just whipped up in the kitchen. Then he asked my youngest daughter a question.

"I speak two languages," he said, "and one of them is English. What's the other?"
Italian, guessed our little Rhodes scholar. "Nope," he answered. "It's dog."
He then proceeded to bay and howl, with remarkably accurate canine inflections. They don't teach this in the Customer Relations course at the Cornell School of Restaurant Management. Those with ordinary appetites might have been tempted to call it an evening at this point. But my family eats like longshoremen who've just spent the day unloading hundred-pound coffee sacks on the docks.

So we ordered a round of desserts. An excellent cannoli, dense and not too sweet, and kid-approved spumoni capped the meal.

We'll be back to play in Mr. Grandinetti's neighborhood.

Tony & Maria's Trattoria & Pizzeria also oozes neighborhood charm. A small place, with maybe a dozen tables, it's decorated in Basic Joint: Formica-topped tables, green blinds and posters heavy on beer themes. The radio was appropriately tuned to the oldies station. The Beach Boys and the Crystals fit this old-fashioned restaurant perfectly.

As the menu explains, there's a real Tony and Maria behind the place. They founded it, sold it, took it back again. On a recent Thursday night, the place was crowded with a mix of neighborhood types that highlighted its broad appeal. A tattooed biker couple puffed endless cigarettes at a window table. Three chic women, obviously straight from the office, took off their suit jackets and quaffed some beers. A mom tried to placate her wailing kids by handing them pieces of cutlery. Soon we were ducking forks and listening to the drum solo from "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" played with spoons.

But who cared? Our waitress was friendly and efficient, and the food was first-rate.

Here, dinners come with salad or soup of the day. The kids balked at cream of broccoli, but the adult palates found it creamy with just the right veggie intensity. The salad was better than I've had in places with $20 entrees: lettuce, tomato, red onion, green pepper, olives, shredded cheese and mushrooms (canned, unfortunately) in a good, house-Italian dressing.

The main dishes arrived in oblong casserole dishes, each topped with melted cheese and homemade marinara sauce. It was hard to tell which was which without digging in, but nobody complained about the excavation.

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