PASTA LIFE REGRESSION

Christo's, 6327 North Seventh Street, Phoenix, 264-1784. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.

For the first few moments after we entered Christo's, I got the odd sensation that we had wandered into the restaurant version of "Cheers"--a place where everybody knows your name. The proprietors, the waiters and Mike the bartender seemed to greet everyone who walked in the door like longtime patrons. They probably were. This is the kind of dining-out experience that will generate repeat business. Almost ten years old, Christo's vibrates with that special feel that every restaurant yearns for--genuine neighborhood warmth. You can't attribute much of the glow to the nondescript room. One side of the long room overlooks the strip-mall parking lot. Other visual highlights are mirrors, framed posters of people in self-conscious art-deco poses and strategically perched flower arrangements. It's the affable service and comfy Italian-continental food that inspire the loyal crowd of customers. A plate of cannelloni shared as an appetizer provided the first evidence of the kitchen's skill. Two delicate pasta tubes come fragrantly stuffed with meat, spinach and almonds, drizzled with a superb cream sauce that highlighted every bite. If you're used to rubbery cannelloni swamped under a bucket of tomato sauce, Christo's version will be a real eye-opener. Not everybody loves mussels the way I do--a couple of my companions initially wanted no part of them. But even they were singing a different tune after I forced them to sample the tender critters soaked in a lightly scented cream wine sauce. The $5.95 tag for the 18 mussels furnished an additional reason to smile. And the saut‚ed scallops Parisienne, garnished with mushrooms and almonds, are an equally seaworthy starter. Don't be lulled into downing the routine soup and salad that accompany dinner, just because they're set down in front of you. Instead, keep your appetite on edge for the main dishes. They're about as predictable as a Phoenix weather forecast in June. The regular menu lists five varieties of chicken breast (parmigiana, Florentine); six kinds of veal (piccata, Marsala); and three kinds of shrimp (Fra Diavalo, scampi). The nightly specials, however, are a lot more energetic. The osso buco is a particular standout--a superbly meaty and tender braised veal shank dripping with juices. The unadorned fettuccine alongside makes the perfect vehicle for sopping them up. There's no question that the osso buco is Christo's signature dish.

Location Info

Map

Avanti Restaurant of Distinction

2728 E. Thomas Road
Phoenix, AZ 85016

Category: Restaurant > Italian

Region: East Phoenix

The kitchen does a wonderful job with Chilean sea bass, too. It's grilled to a flaky, shimmering translucence, and coated with a light marinara sauce that doesn't overpower the delicate fish flavor. Someone in this kitchen knows fish. Duck in a brandy-and-green-peppercorn sauce isn't very hip, but the model here is solidly fashioned. The skin is crisped, and the generously sized bird is remarkably ungreasy.

Chicken Bolognese, though, didn't match the zest of the other platters. A skimpy breast comes draped with ham and cheese, moistened with an undistinguished, Marsala-tinged sauce. This is the kind of Italian-continental dish that would definitely benefit from some updating. Desserts are the one part of the meal that could use some picking up. Our waiter said that the cräme caramel was the only homemade sweet, and it didn't seem worth the effort. The supplier's chocolate cake also couldn't keep up with the meal's other high notes. And a word about espresso. Those prepackaged pods of ground espresso that Christo uses are no doubt a great convenience for restaurant owners, and a money saver, as well. But they don't have that fresh-ground taste. And at the rate they're infiltrating restaurants, pretty soon diners are going to forget what real espresso tastes like. I'll happily pay the extra two bits for the genuine article. Please cut corners someplace else.

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