Youth Wants to Gnaw

Tucchetti, Town & Country Shopping Center, 20th Street and Camelback, Phoenix, 957-0222. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11:15 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday, 11:15 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 4:30 to 9 p.m.

Someone once asked W.C. Fields if he liked children.
"Only if they're properly cooked," replied the crusty comic. The old misanthrope may have been on to something.

I certainly see his point, especially when it comes to dining out with your own prides and joys. On any scale of anxiety, bringing kids to a restaurant ranks just beneath spending the night at Tent City.

Talk about whining and dining. When they were young, my daughters spent most of their restaurant time either overturning milk glasses or reenacting the first Ali-Frazier bout. Now that they're teenagers, they've turned sullen, unhappy that they have to be seen in public with a couple of senile, aging dorks (i.e., mom and dad). Instead of fisticuffs, we have to deal with conversation stoppers like, "When I get my driver's license, I'm going to take the car and drive to Las Vegas. And you can't stop me."

It's the holiday season; school is out. It's time for family mealtime togetherness. But the kids don't want to eat at home, and I can feel their pain--we've been subsisting on leftover turkey salad and Chex mix since the day after Thanksgiving.

On the other hand, I'm not about to take them out to pricey restaurants where the waiters call me "Monsieur," refold our napkins and ask how we'd like the Chateaubriand prepared.

So I looked for a spot that meets my family-restaurant criteria: tasty food, kid-friendly atmosphere and prices that won't set the alarm bells ringing at Visa headquarters.

First stop: a step back in time to Tucchetti, an all-American Italian restaurant where June and Ward Cleaver could have taken Wally and the Beaver in perfect confidence. Remember the days when spaghetti and meatballs were on the menu, and risotto, bistecca alla fiorentina and osso buco weren't? The savvy proprietors behind the pizza/pasta/veal Parmesan comfort food here do. And judging from the crowds, so does most of Phoenix.

Tucchetti's rustic-Italian look is as carefully calculated as the menu. There's a false patio roof overhead, laced with colored lights and plastic vines, and laden with bunches of plastic grapes. Chianti bottles in wicker baskets hang suspended from the ceiling, and old family-album photographs line the fake-brick walls. Naturally, tables are covered with red-checked oilcloth, and naturally, accordion renditions of familiar Italian tunes spill out of the music system. Don't worry about noisy kids here--you couldn't hear a 747 over the din. While adults soak up the setting and turn down their hearing aids, the little ones get crayons and coloring materials to keep them occupied.

If your kids are at the clean-out-the-refrigerator-and-pantry stage of their development, Tucchetti makes good eating-out sense. Portions are huge; entrees come with an all-you-can-eat soup and salad bar; and there are free soft-drink refills. And if you're at the stage of your development where you require inexpensive, undemanding, generally tasty Italian-American fare, Tucchetti will work for you as well.

The whole family should appreciate the thickly stocked minestrone soup, especially if members opt to make it "alla Genovese." No, that isn't Italian for "in the style of a crime boss." It means Genoa-style, tossing in a spoonful of fresh, garlicky pesto, one of Tucchetti's soup-bar options.

Unfortunately, the salad bar doesn't have nearly the same flair. It's a snoozy mix of iceberg lettuce and the usual supporting cast. However, there is one vat worth seeking out--giardiniera, a mix of zesty veggies perked up with olives and capers.

Among the appetizers, the baked artichoke hearts should please the grown-ups. Tucchetti doesn't stint on the artichokes, which come moistened with a tangy lemon-garlic sauce. The toasted-ravioli starter--crunchy, deep-fried critters stuffed with stretchy cheese--should please the kids. The stuffed mushrooms won't please anybody: four tasteless, rubbery fungi drowned in a pool of off-putting liquid cholesterol.

Tucchetti's pasta entrees won't whip you into a gastronomic frenzy. Still, they're almost all priced under 10 dollars. And if you order right, they can at least put you in a very good mood. Orecchiette is by far the best noodle dish here. It's pasta shaped like little ears, tossed with broccoli in a sizzling iron skillet, enlivened with sun-dried tomatoes and low levels of garlic.

Kids turned off by the prospect of broccoli will find happiness in the baked spaghetti. A big brick of crusted noodles, there's nothing complicated or elegant about it, but it's a sure-fire hit. Don't bother, though, paying an extra buck to add a flavorless meatball or sausage. If you close your eyes and take a bite, you can't tell which is which.

Linguini with pesto and pine nuts delivers a surprising amount of ethnic flair. Angel hair with shrimp doesn't. While the dozen crustaceans make a favorable impression, the promised "basil and garlic oil" flavoring is too faint to make any impression at all. Stuffed shells are boosted by a commendable Alfredo sauce and lots of cheese, a smart way to appeal to kids. Lasagna, meanwhile, is strictly routine.

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