THE MARINARA-GO-ROUND

Spinach lasagna--the most expensive item on the menu at $6.25--was a winner. Lots of noodles, lots of ricotta, lots of spinach, lots of sauce and lots of good eating. Mostaccioli with Sicilian-style eggplant got my eggplant-loving taste buds in gear. Cheese tortellini and ravioli were hits with the kids.

The desserts could use some work, although maybe Tony and Maria figure so few people will have room for them, it's hardly worth the effort.

You can no more sneak dessert past the Seftel clan, however, than you can slip dawn past a rooster.

Tortoni tartufo was a small scoop of amaretto-flavored ice cream rolled in nuts. It was pricey at $2.75, and just ordinary. Nor did the cannoli inspire any satisfied sighs. Best was a cinnamon-tinged rice pudding, creamy and not too sweet.

As we got up to go, our waitress walked by with a gorgeous-looking pizza. Hot and bubbly, it seemed to be topped with everything except a human sacrifice. "You'll just have to come back and try it," she smiled, noting our longing gazes. Nothing wrong with Tony and Maria's neighborhood, we decided.

Sal Rinaldo's greets you with every clich‚ of Italian decor except a booth marking a gangland rub-out: plastic, red-checked tablecloths, Chianti bottles with melted wax, neon beer signs, and an endless tape of pre-1960 Italian melodies.

The dinner salad here was terrific: Tomatoes, real mushrooms, olives, lettuce, pepperoncini and crumbly blue cheese come with the zesty house dressing. And it didn't hurt to have the fat, garlicky breadsticks that come with the entrees, or draft beer in a frosted mug. As at Grandinetti's and Tony & Maria's, you won't get shortchanged on your main dishes. Priced between five and ten dollars, they're simple, tasty and filling.

The shrimp scampi looked delicious: five big shrimp soaked in garlic and butter over linguini. I'd like to tell you how they tasted, but my daughter polished them off before I got my napkin spread over my lap. She assured me that I didn't actually need a sample. "Just say they're really good," she suggested helpfully.

Fortunately, the rest of the family lacked her fork speed. Pasta Rinaldo was thin spaghetti topped with sausage, ground beef, mushrooms, pepper and olives simmered in a red-wine sauce. It was pleasing and hearty. Manicotti and ravioli were crammed with lots of cheese in a nice tomato sauce. The stuffed bread, filled with sausage, peppers and cheese, was enough to satisfy the hungriest appetite.

Only the tortellini pagno fino fell short. Overcooked tortellini in a bland Alfredo sauce came sprinkled with peas, but with no trace of the bacon the menu promised.

The kids were real pleased with the Italian ices for dessert. On a hot Phoenix evening, they're the next best thing to a trip to San Diego. I recounted how I used to buy Italian ices from a street vendor when I was a kid, and then sit down on my stoop and slowly lick them. They asked what a stoop was. (It's the front steps of a brownstone.) Then they pleaded to be spared other details of my youth.

We should have stuck with the Italian ices and our memories.
The $2.95 cannoli here bore little resemblance to the famed Italian pastry. Surely Sal knows about good cannoli, but he must imagine most of his customers don't. For some reason, too, there's tiramisu, an exotic Italian dessert that's way beyond the capacity of Sal or his supplier. Man's reach should exceed his grasp, but not in neighborhood Italian restaurants.

These kinds of places can continue to survive only as long as they reliably provide traditional southern Italian fare at reasonable prices. If you live around Grandinetti's, Tony & Maria's or Sal Rinaldo's, it's still a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

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