CRUST ALMIGHTY

Oregano's hoagies have a touch of ethnic oomph. The thick-stuffed Italian hoagie comes crammed with pepperoni, ham, salami and provolone, spiced up with peppers, olives and tomatoes and then baked. In this case, the bread's on target, too. Like the lasagna, the desserts unexpectedly knocked me out. I'm a New York cheesecake snob, but the homemade cheesecake here is ready for Broadway--thick, creamy, cheesy and heavy. There's also something called a pizzookie: It's a slab of almost-baked chocolate chip cookie dough lining a six-inch pizza pan, with a heap of vanilla ice cream. You won't find the recipe in Gourmet magazine. But, like most of Oregano's offerings, it is primally satisfying. Gino's East of Chicago, 1470 East Southern, Tempe, 730-0300. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight. Founded by two cabdrivers in 1966, Gino's is a popular Chicago pizza institution that's aiming to go national. You don't need an MBA from the Wharton School to figure out why the Midwestern-rooted Valley is one of its first expansion stops. The Tempe branch looks like a typical college-town pizza-and-beer joint, but it's not a boozy student hangout. You'll see plenty of families and older folks here, too. The key decor element, just like in the original Windy City place, is graffiti. Management encourages customers to scrawl on every surface, even providing markers for that purpose. If you sit motionless for 15 seconds, there's a good chance someone will use you as a human blackboard. Of course, there's a dangerous element in this. Despite continual staff efforts to wipe out unsavory messages, not all pungent suggestions can be erased. Patrons who don't want to contemplate the enormous variety of English-language scatology may have to try out several tables before they're comfortable. On the other hand, diligent wall-readers can be rewarded with some dry wit. My favorite: "Born to bale hay." Pizza eaters can also be rewarded. Gino's pan pizza is as good as its reputation. A good two inches thick, it sports a crust with real character, a winning combination of taste and texture. The liberally applied toppings are also first-rate, particularly the charred pepperoni and slices of Canadian bacon. And the sauce packs a solid tomato flavor that you rarely encounter on pizzas anymore. The other menu items, though, can't nearly match the pizza. The good news about the lasagna is that there's plenty of it. The bad news is that it's a mushy, gloppy pile of pasta with no distinctive flavors. And our opinion didn't change after we sent it back for reheating--it initially arrived refrigerator-cold in the center.

Nor will the sandwiches threaten to put any local Italian delis out of business. The beef in the Italian beef and sausage combo looks and tastes several processing steps away from fresh. And the bland sausage is keyed to Midwestern palates, not Old Country recipes. Desserts are worse. I've heard a lot of good things about Eli's cheesecake, which, we were told, Gino's brings in from Chicago. So it's hard to believe the light, runny wedge they serve here is a representative sample. Whoever is responsible for the cannoli should be driven to a Jersey swamp and forced to sign a pledge to take up a new line of work. Pizza made Gino's famous. It's still a good reason to eat there--the only one.

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