Food Fighter

Time and again, Valley restaurant legend Nick Ligidakis has cooked his own goose. Will Cafe Niko be another overtrimmed turkey?

To some foodies, this idiosyncratic chef is the populist Wolfgang Puck--a charming kitchen magician who, whether stuffing fans or providing annual Thanksgiving dinners to the needy, is a candidate for culinary sainthood.

To others, however, he's the surly Pizza Nazi--a single-minded megalomaniac whose bullheaded brand of "my way or the highway" perfectionism has turned him into the local restaurant scene's loosest cannon and his own worst enemy.

And while the former group rhapsodizes about his gift for cooking, skeptics counter that his real genius lies in his ability to find investors willing to back one restaurant fiasco after another.

But no matter how you slice it (and if this cook has had a hand in it, you can bet it'll be an obscenely huge portion, dripping with at least three kinds of cheese), one thing's for certain. During the past 13 years, Valley restaurant mavens have gotten a very large bellyful of the larger-than-life force of nature known as Nick Ligidakis.

Now, saddled with one of the most battle-scarred records in local dining history (depending on your math, four or five failed eateries since '84), the controversial restaurateur is back again with his latest assault on the Valley's digestive tract.

Located in OfficeMax Plaza at Hayden and Osborn roads, Cafe Niko is a far cry from the havoc-ridden scenes of Ligidakis' earlier notoriety. Instead of flying crockery, soothing music fills the air on a recent morning. Ligidakis' menu--once a 300-item behemoth that included more than 85 pizza toppings alone--has been pared down to several dozen entrees and appetizers. And when the chef/proprietor stops at a table to have a word with customers these days, it's more likely to be an exchange of pleasantries, not an indignant sermon on why he cannot possibly impugn the integrity of his cooking by omitting an ingredient or serving half portions. (Okay, so substitutions still aren't allowed; only today, at least, Ligidakis isn't quite as vocal about it.)

Over a cup of coffee, the Greek soccer player turned restaurateur ponders the new, gentler Nick Ligidakis.

"We get the idea that we are Superman, and we are not," intones Ligidakis, still darkly handsome at 52. "I'm no longer a young man. It's taken me a while to learn that."

Something resembling a smile momentarily crosses his brooding countenance. "I have mellowed."

Industry observers are already laying odds.

Asked where this indefatigable dynamo fits into the local culinary universe, one Valley food writer doesn't hesitate a moment. "Nick is simply part of the local landscape," comes the answer. "You've got your mountains, your plateaus, your saguaros--and then you've got Nick."

Unlike those first three landmarks, however, Ligidakis rarely stands still for long.

The Valley first caught wind of Ligidakis' garlic-scented smell of excess in 1984, the year he arrived in Phoenix and took over a failing pizza 'n' wings joint at 50th Street and McDowell.

Rechristening it the Golden Pizza, the tireless pie-flipper and self-promoter gradually transformed an unremarkable hole in the wall into a cult feeding trough.

The big attraction? Ten-pound pizzas. Football-size calzones. Massive cakes that caved in on themselves under the weight of five pounds of chocolate. And virtually all of it cooked by Ligidakis himself, working out of a closet-size kitchen that frequently doubled as sleeping quarters following 18-hour shifts.

A pro soccer player in his native Greece, Ligidakis found himself stranded in the United States when a Chicago-based league fell apart in 1969. Using recipes he'd picked up at his father's taverna, he became a restaurateur by default, managing or operating a series of eateries in Chicago before relocating his family to the Valley. (That move, claims Ligidakis, was precipitated by his then-mother-in-law's health problems.)

Near penniless Greek soccer player comes to town, opens funky pizzeria in an unfashionable part of town and, against all odds, attracts a fervent clientele that cuts across all class lines. Ligidakis' story was a quirky Horatio Alger tale custom-made for the restaurant-crazed '80s.

Although many members of the food press ate it up, some observers didn't, and continue to be bewildered by the Ligidakis feeding frenzy.

"To me he always seemed to be this sort of amateurish guy who thought more was better and threw virtually everything he could think of into a single dish," says Phoenix Magazine's Nikki Buchanan, a food writer who's followed Ligidakis' career from his original pizzeria. "There'd be 10 or 15 ingredients in a concoction, everything but the kitchen sink, and everyone oohed and aahed. To me, this was really the sign of someone who didn't know when to quit.

"Except for those wonderful pizzas he used to do--which I absolutely loved--I just never got it," Buchanan continues. Still, "the very thing I hated [about his cooking] appears to be the very thing a lot of people loved. To them, these weird assemblages of stuff was very cool."

A fellow critic agrees. "This is not showcase cuisine," says New Times food writer Howard Seftel. "Nobody's going to take a visitor to one of his places to show off the town." Instead, he characterizes Ligidakis' past eateries as places to "eat tons of food at not-unreasonable prices."

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