Me Starvin', You Chain

Piatti, 7704 East Doubletree Ranch Road, Scottsdale, 951-1199. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, 5 to 11 p.m., seven days a week.

Why is it that food sophisticates--and I cheerfully admit I'm one of them--turn up their noses at chain restaurants?

We elitists can offer several reasons, and they all seem utterly convincing. There's the cookie-cutter mentality--every branch looks exactly the same, every branch menu reads exactly the same. We resent the pitch to mass tastes. When you're feeding the lowest common denominator, culinary creativity and bold flavors aren't prized. We are also unhappy that policy is set in corporate headquarters, where the bean counters rule, and not the kitchen, where the chef has the final word. In short, we have come to expect chain-restaurant fare to be dull, limited and predictable.

But it doesn't have to be that way. Mass production, whether in the factory or kitchen, isn't necessarily an evil. When Henry Ford came out with the Model-T, the joke was that you could buy any color you wanted, as long as it was black. And the auto wasn't nearly as elegant a way to travel as, say, a Pullman sleeper. But the Model-T was affordable and ran beautifully. Most important, it gave millions of folks the opportunity to make contacts beyond their farm, village or town. It literally opened up a new world.

Mass-production restaurants have some up sides, too, at least potentially. There's reliability. When you do the same dishes over and over, you're more likely to get them right. Chains can also help spread and popularize food trends. A generation ago, for instance, almost no one outside the Southwest knew about tortillas, and no one beyond big urban ethnic enclaves could recognize a bagel. Just 10 years ago, only the hippest diners had heard of tiramisu or balsamic vinaigrette. Now, they're all mainstream items. And don't forget price. Whether you're manufacturing cars or food, mass production's economies of scale keep costs down.

Why am I suddenly going soft on chains? It's because I just encountered two very different, new-to-the-Valley operations that do commendable work. Scottsdale's Piatti is the 15th in a line of casually upscale Italian restaurants that started in California a decade ago. Cracker Barrel, meanwhile, was born 30 years ago in Tennessee. This down-home, family-friendly place, which serves budget-priced American fare, has almost 350 outlets across America.

Piatti isn't breaking any new Italian culinary ground. But what the corporate kitchen lacks in inventiveness it makes up in skillful preparation. Most everything here is very good. Some of it is first-rate.

The surroundings are just as pleasant as the food. Piatti has an inviting look and feel: an airy room trimmed with polished wood; lots of windows; an open kitchen; and perfect lighting, muted, but still bright enough to read the menu. Somebody, however, needs to shut off the thumpa-thumpa music. Maybe Piatti's youthful staff likes it, but I bet the mostly non-youthful Scottsdale crowd dining here finds the music annoying.

There's nothing annoying about the breadbasket. I couldn't get too excited about the spongy basil focaccia. But the crusty, rustic homebaked Italian loaf is outstanding, good enough to sell retail. For some reason, however, the bread comes with an inane dipping sauce, made from olive oil, balsamic vinegar, garlic and parsley. This isn't a dipping sauce--it's salad dressing.

Appetizers have unexpected flair. Naturally, there's the usual fried calamari. But Piatti adds battered rock shrimp and veggies to the mix, turning an appetizer cliche into something a little more memorable. Hard-hitting homemade venison sausage, teamed with roasted peppers and white beans, also makes a vivid impression. But this dish is so strong-flavored it's hard to follow. I'd take it off the appetizer list and turn it into an entree. And I'd take one evening's appetizer special, sauteed sweetbreads with portabella mushroom, and make it part of the permanent collection. This small, intense starter does just what it's supposed to do--get you primed for the main dish.

And several main dishes will keep you stoked. The homemade gnocchi are some of the best I've had in Arizona. The light potato-flour dumplings are vigorously embellished with roasted portabella mushrooms and arugula, and smothered in a delightfully rich cream sauce. Pappardelle, one evening's pasta special, is almost as compelling. These thick ribbons of noodles come bathed in a robust vodka cream sauce. Had the chef tossed in something other than teensy-weensy bay scallops, this dish might have gone to the head of the class.

Risotto is another special that merits daily exposure. The dish has just the right textures, firm rice in a creamy pool, while grilled shrimp provide tasty adornment.

My heart usually sinks when professional duty obliges me to order veal scaloppine. Let's face it--it's on every Italian menu in town, and it's rarely very thrilling. To my delight, however, Piatti's version got my heart rate up. The sauteed veal is high-quality, and it's lustily paired with wild mushrooms and herbed polenta. This platter deserves serious main-dish consideration.

So does the lovely lamb shank, gorgeous, fall-off-the-bone meat, braised in red wine and deftly accompanied by a butternut squash risotto.

The only disappointment? It's the Alaskan halibut, a special that wasn't very. It's just a basic piece of grilled fish. The sides of beans and dandelion greens helped, but weren't enough to stifle my yawns.

Give Piatti credit for making its desserts in-house, instead of importing them from a corporate commissary. And give the bosses credit for hiring someone with the talent to make them. Tiramisu, molten chocolate cake and brioche bread pudding end the meal on a high note. So do the superb coffee and espresso, which somebody here knows how to brew.

So what if Piatti is a chain? It dishes out the kind of fare I wouldn't mind being shackled to.

Cracker Barrel, 21611 North 26th Avenue, Phoenix, 582-6020. Hours: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.

It's late. You're traveling on an interstate, searching for a room. You see the Bates Motel at the next exit, its sign flashing "Vacancy" and "Rooms, $19.95." At the same time, you see a billboard announcing a Holiday Inn 30 miles away. Do you pull into the Bates Motel, or drive another half-hour?

Of course, you drive on. Chains offer security, comfort and predictability. Who knows what the Bates Motel is like?

Cracker Barrel, which does business at interstate exits in 35 states, offers the same security, comfort and predictability. This chain really has its act together. And for mom and dad, it's an especially attractive alternative to feeding the kids at a deep-fried, fast-food outlet.

The company is building outlets all over the Valley, each with its trademark, "Old Country Store" theme. Outside, there's always a big porch, filled with inviting rocking chairs for sale. Inside, almost half the space is devoted to a retail shop, filled with a zillion useless knickknacks. The restaurant area features animal heads mounted on the wall, a stone fireplace and vintage photos and magazines. The North 26th Avenue branch also pipes in, at mercifully low decibel levels, country tunes from KNIX.

There are three very good reasons to eat here: The food is good; there's plenty of it; and the tab won't set off the alarm bells on your account at Visa headquarters.

Meals get off to a good start with a basket of fresh corn muffins and excellent buttermilk biscuits. A homemade soup of the day is also worth considering. The thick, creamy broccoli-cheese broth actually tasted like broccoli and cheese.

Most entrees are in the $7 to $8 range, and it's a range just about everyone should be at home on. Sugar-glazed ham is irresistible, grilled up with a sweet, caramelized edge. The chicken in the chicken and dumplings looks and tastes like white meat that came off a real chicken breast. And the dumplings smothered in thick gravy have a bit of heft to them, just the way I prefer them.

Chicken pot pie also shows the kitchen's facility with poultry. This peppery model features lots of carrot and a fresh-tasting pastry-crust canopy. Spicy grilled catfish is another effective entree, very moist and touched up with mild Cajun seasonings.

Somewhat more ordinary is the meat loaf, which lacks beefy punch. Though I enjoyed the tangy, oniony barbecue sauce, the slab of ribs isn't quite rib-parlor quality. And while the thinly stocked beef stew is tasty enough, it's more accurately described as beef soup--the liquid-to-solid ratio is way out of whack.

Don't bother with fried shrimp. It's strictly institutional--all batter and no shrimp taste. Pork barbecue is so inoffensive it makes almost no impression. And the none-too-juicy hamburger comes slathered with mayonnaise--ugh.

The side dishes are a major part of the Cracker Barrel operation, and a source of its appeal. Most entrees come with two or three, and some are so good you'll want to make a meal of them. At the top of the list are the remarkable turnip greens, flavored with ham hock. They come with a cruet of vinegar--sprinkle some on, just like they do in the backcountry. The hashbrown casserole, crisped up with cheese and onion, is also praiseworthy, as are the homemade mashed potatoes, ham-spiked pinto beans and sweet fried apples.

Desserts aren't subtle. The best is the caramel-pecan bread pudding, a stunningly sweet concoction. Look for raisin-studded, coconut-flavored bread pudding, drenched with caramel sauce and topped with candied pecans and ice cream. Yikes. Chocolate peanut butter pie is as rich as it gets. And kids will enjoy the brownielike chocolate cobbler, topped with ice cream and hot fudge.

Sure, Cracker Barrel's setting and fare are pure chain-restaurant formula. In this case, however, you've got to give management credit for factoring quality and value into the equation.

Sauteed sweetbreads
$7.00
Gnocchi
11.00
Veal scaloppine
17.50
Molten chocolate cake
4.50

Cracker Barrel:
Broccoli-cheese soup (cup)
$1.99
Chicken pot pie
6.59
Sugar-cured ham
6.79
Caramel-pecan bread pudding
2.69

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