The Price Is Slight

Centro Cafe & Bakery, 2831 North 24th Street, Phoenix, 224-9235. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Friday, 11a.m. to 9 p.m.; Dinner, Saturday, 4 to 9p.m.; closed Sunday.

We're only a few days into 1996, and my resolution to carry out my resolutions is already wearing out.

For instance, in order to get my height-weight ratio into better balance, I've resolved to be six inches taller. So far, however, I have nothing--not even a centimeter--to show for my efforts.

I resolved to raise my net worth by 100 percent. So what happens? The even-money favorite at Turf Paradise runs second. Instead of doubling my portfolio, now I'm out the whole two bucks.

Concerned with family values, I resolved to spend more time with my wife and children. Is it my fault that they didn't want to share quality moments together watching 14 hours of football on January 1? ("Honey, kids, come sit next to me on the sofa. And bring the chips.")

They say that when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Faced with adversity, I go eating. At least something has worked out for me this year.

That's because I stumbled onto two first-rate restaurants, each offering high-quality fare at prices that won't push holiday-straitened budgets over the edge.

Centro Cafe & Bakery is a real find. Set in a typically unglamorous strip mall in an unglamorous part of town, it's not the kind of place you're likely towander into serendipitously. (I was tipped to it by a reader.)

Inside, the proprietor has done the best he could to make diners comfortable. The ten tables are covered with green linen tablecloths under protective glass, and adorned with a silk rose. Ansel Adams photos hang from one wall, Sedona Jazz Festival posters line another. The sole waitress is efficient and eager to please.

Open about three months, the place is operated by a young chef who can't be more than a few years removed from his senior prom. But in this case, youth clearly isn't wasted on the young. The landlord of this property would be wise to lock him quickly into a long-term lease. Because if Junior can manage the business end of Centro Cafe & Bakery as well as he can cook, this place is going to be around for quite a while.

The food is Italian, with lots of Greek and Middle Eastern touches. That basically means pasta, either topped by sauces or partnered with seafood or chicken. But the vigorous scents of the southern and eastern Mediterranean infuse just about everything: Count on some combination of sun-dried tomatoes, eggplant, artichokes, lemon, basil, dill, capers, wine and cheese to titillate your senses of taste and smell. And count on tons of garlic. The chef throws it around with all the abandon of a superstitious Transylvanian villager.

Centro Cafe & Bakery's menu and prices (nothing goes for more than $8.95) strongly reminded me of Mike's Golden Crust, a west-side Italian/Greek restaurant with wonderful, low-cost fare. (It's at 15820 North 35th Avenue.) After I mentioned the similarities to the waitress, she told me the chef had worked with Mike until they had a "falling-out." Well, there's no shame in stealing a good idea, especially if you're talented enough to execute the concept.

One lesson the chef has learned is the importance of good bread. He bakes some warm, crunchy focaccia and inventively teams it with a garlicky hummus dip. The only problem: I could make a meal of it.

But if I did, I'd be depriving myself of some exceptional dishes. Among the appetizers, for example, look out for the luscious rock shrimp cakes: two plump, skillet-fried croquettes fashioned with lots of shrimp and a bucketful of diced tomatoes and garlic. It's yummy, and a steal at $4.95. Spanakopita also is nicely done, a massive piece of phyllo dough stuffed full of spinach, feta cheese and pine nuts, all freshened with dill and smothered, somewhat unnecessarily, in tomato sauce.

But the biggest appetizer surprise is the sauteed calamari. Most calamari dishes tend to have the texture of the Sunday paper's rubber band. But this platter is a revelation, as good as I've had in the Valley. The secret, says the chef, is getting the pan really hot and cooking the calamari for just a few brief moments. Then he adds some herbs and lots of lemon, and sprinkles on a bit of cheese. Just thinking about it gets my appetite juices flowing.

The menu doesn't mention it, but main dishes all come with salad. It's better than it has to be, aided by a tart, homemade vinaigrette.

Pasta entrees share three appealing traits: You get ample portions, great taste and change back from a ten. Pasta pescatore brings a bowl of linguini supporting tender calamari, scallops and two firm jumbo shrimp, moistened with a full-bodied marinara sauce. Rigatoni dotted with bits of pancetta and asparagus comes smoothed in creamy sauce, all draped with a three-cheese crust. Penne melanzane stars big chunks of roasted eggplant tossed with pasta and cheese. Manicotti Florentine employs fresh pasta tubes crammed with several cheeses and spinach and baked in Alfredo sauce.

And lasagna gets zipped up by homemade sausage, although you have to wade through a pool of tomato sauce to find it.

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