Out for the Holidays

Our Gang Cafe, 9832 North Seventh Street, Phoenix, 870-4122. Hours: Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 4:30 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 4:30 to 11 p.m.

Today's Jeopardy! answer: Sleep 'til noon, whine about boredom and eat a week's worth of groceries as an afternoon snack.

The correct question: What do kids like to do on their winter break?
Every parent knows that feeding perpetually hungry kids during school vacation is a never-ending chore. "How about a turkey salad sandwich?" I say, pointing with all the enthusiasm I can muster at the plastic tub of green stuff that's been bubbling in the back of the refrigerator since the day after Thanksgiving. My wife proposes another mealtime option, suggesting that the children make a festive dinner from the bowls of hard candies and Chex party mix in the living room. Hearing this, our offspring narrow their eyes and fix us with the same sort of malevolent glare that Erik and Lyle once laid on Ma and Pa Menendez.

Eating out is a better holiday alternative. I start out with one inflexible ground rule: no McFood in any form. Then, I go through my check list.

First, I look for a place that caters to families. That means a spilled glass of water, a high-decibel conversation about the best cures for preteen acne or a sudden flurry of jabs, hooks and uppercuts won't throw the staff or fellow diners off stride.

Second, although they say you can't put a price on family togetherness, I can: ten bucks a person.

Third, while it's not fair to insist that kid-friendly fare climb to gourmet heights, I don't think it's too much to demand that it reach a level of, say, reasonably tasty.

So, armed with wife and two kids, 40 bucks and scaled-back critical standards, I went out in search of a pizza/pasta/sandwich family dinner.

The first stop was Our Gang Cafe, about which I've been hearing lots of good word of mouth for several months. It's tucked away in a low-profile strip mall that probably doesn't attract a two-second glance from most drivers whizzing past on Seventh Street. Too bad. If you've got kids in the back seat, this place is worth slowing down for.

It's not an old-fashioned, neighborhood Italian restaurant. It is, however, designed to look like an old-fashioned, neighborhood Italian restaurant. That translates into red-checked curtains, black-checked oilcloth on the tables, and "Volare" and Sinatra on the music system. Obligatory cans of scungilli, bottles of oil and jars of peppers line the room. The main room also features a small fountain, as well as a sixfoot Statue of Liberty holding a pizza box. You can't overlook the Our Gang motif, either--lots of stills and posters.

One bonus is the patio, warmed by a fireplace and heaters. The surrounding walls have been done up to look like a Little Italy tenement. It's an effective touch.

The food at this easygoing place is just as effective--and cheap and hearty. Take the appetizers. Crunchy, cheesy fried ravioli come right out of the fryer, without a greasy patina. Focaccia is a more filling option: warm, puffy bread sprinkled with cheese and a ladleful of rosemary, accompanied by olive oil for dunking.

(It's amazing how the dipping bowl of olive oil, once the signature of higher-end Italian dining, has penetrated even low-priced Americanized Italian restaurants. It's a promising sign.)

Main dishes won't astonish anyone with their novelty. But if your kids were interested in novelty, they'd be at home cleaning their rooms, watching PBS or putting away their laundry.

Our Gang Cafe puts together a first-rate pizza. We opted for one of the nine specialty models, a New York white pizza fashioned with ricotta, mozzarella, Romano and Parmesan cheeses, spiked with enough garlic to keep the werewolves at bay until Memorial Day. A chewy, NewYork-style crust adds to this sauceless pizza's charms.

Eggplant parmigiana is reasonably well-prepared. That's because the thinly sliced eggplant isn't fried into an oily, mushy pulp. Instead, it retains its texture and flavor. The indifferent sauce, however, would have benefited from some oregano or basil punch.

The calzone here looks like something out of the old neighborhood. It's huge, fresh and tasty. And, unlike so many inferior local versions, it's crammed full of cheese and diced plum tomatoes, not hot air. Most folks probably won't be able to finish it in one sitting. At $5.95, the price is certainly right, too.

Baked tortellini delivers warm Italian comfort food on chilly Valley winter evenings. First, the meat-stuffed pasta is cooked to aldente specs. Half of it gets bathed in tomato sauce, the other half in Alfredo sauce. Then it's all covered with cheese and baked in the oven. Fresh garlic rolls provide enjoyable diversion.

The only off note came from the Bronx Delight, a hefty, oven-baked sandwich filled with sliced sausage and tons of peppers and onions. The sausage was much too bland for my taste, and the texture didn't seem quite right, either. However, the wonderful side of crunchy homemade potato chips that came with it almost made up for the sandwich's shortcomings.

Supplier-provided desserts are typical kid-pleasers. Both the chocolate-hazelnut tartufo (ice cream in a chocolate shell) and slab of spumoni will send the children home smiling. So will the free refills of soda. (Oktoberfest and Double Diamond beer on tap, meanwhile, ought to put mom and dad in a good mood, too.)

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