Unsung Heroes, Pasta and Pizza

Small wonders greet adventurous diners in Tempe.

Crisdee's

Chef Razz Kamnitzer grumbles that chain restaurants use glittery marketing instead of good food to lure customers in the door. What bothers him the most is not that he doesn't have an advertising budget equal to that of the Olive Garden, but that the public believes the packaged puffery.

Chef Christopher Gross dreams of opening a tiny eatery in an obscure location -- sans expensive decor, lacking high-profile publicity, with the emphasis strictly on great food. He'd call his place "No Expectations." When diners come into a hole-in-the-wall and discover what they least anticipate -- good food -- the surprise makes the experience that much better, he says.

Crisdee's serves up classic Italian food in a low-key setting.
Erik Guzowski
Crisdee's serves up classic Italian food in a low-key setting.

Details

Crisdee's

Appetizers:
Toasted cheese ravioli: $5.29

Entrees:
Shrimp scampi: $9.89
Chicken cannelloni: $6.79
Lasagna: $7.49
Cheesesteak (half): $4.75

1402 South Priest, Tempe, 480-377-8971. Hours: Lunch and dinner, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.

NY54 Deli

Sinatra: $6.49
5 Boroughs: $5.49
Long Islander: $5.99
54: $8.99
New York Cheesecake: $4.25

1006 East Warner, Tempe, 480-839-6954. Hours: Lunch and dinner, Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

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The two local chefs are keenly aware of how important marketing is in a highly competitive restaurant industry. Yet they've also discovered how the gauze of glamour can become suffocating -- call yourself a master chef, and suddenly your customers expect to be dining on masterpieces. That simple piece of ahi, which would be celebrated at any lesser-known restaurant, goes under the microscope when a restaurant becomes a name destination, and suddenly a chef is leaping over himself to live up to his press.

Then there are restaurants like Crisdee's. Open about eight months, Crisdee's hasn't made any marketing statement I'm aware of. It's not in a great location -- tucked on the edge of an industrial park area off a feeder street in Tempe. And it won't wow anyone with its exterior -- just another white box, accented with hunter green paint. Its name, derived from a combination of owners Christopher and Deanna Bimer, gives us no clue of what type of food to expect.

Yet for everything it may be doing wrong in a traditional business plan, Crisdee's is doing one thing very right: serving delicious, home-style Italian food. And yes, it's much better than we would expect.

Its interior speaks little of the type of food that emerges from the kitchen -- this place looks like it's been lifted from the set of Cheers, all dark wood, '50s-era posters, stained-glass accents and a big cozy bar that practically screams for some ferns. Lighting is dark, carpet is dark, and music is, believe it or not, upbeat swing and big band classics.

But when the plates are set down, there's no doubt we're in for excellent Italian food. Another most welcome surprise: Most of the big dishes are priced under $8.

I've eaten enough bad bar food to raise the hair on the back of my neck when I see offerings like toasted cheese ravioli. So often they're sullen briquettes and a complete waste of stomach space. But the versions here are superb, bringing a half-dozen golden nuggets stuffed with what tastes like seasoned ricotta and mozzarella, sprinkled with fresh Parmesan and slicked with chunky marinara and creamy Alfredo sauces.

The small (seven-inch) pizza makes another fine starter, with four healthy slices of thick-crust pie. The Crisdee's combo covers all the favorites, with a crust-to-crust bed of pepperoni topped with black olive, sausage rounds, green pepper, onion and juicy monster mushroom slices.

The bulk of the menu is pasta, so it's surprising that the Bimers don't make their own on-site. They've got a quality purveyor, though, and it's fresh, not that dried stuff.

Spaghettini pasta is fine fare, even with its silly name of "I've Got You Under My Scampi." A huge, parsley-dusted dish brims with the tender noodles, decked out with shrimp sautéed in a well-balanced buttery lemon-garlic sauce.

This is a generous kitchen, too. Two cannelloni are burrito-size beasts, while remaining feathery light crepes stuffed with a terrific mixture of herbed ground chicken, chopped mushroom and spinach, and buckets of ricotta cheese. They're gently baked and bathed in a vibrantly spicy tomato sauce, draped with creamy Alfredo and sprinkled with fresh grated Parmesan. A Big Italian dish is as filling as it sounds, too, teaming a truckload of mild Italian sausage, red onion, mushroom and bell pepper with al dente penne and marinara.

Lasagna, meanwhile, has become a lost love of sorts -- the classic dish is increasingly difficult to find outside of casual delis and chains (too common for today's diners, perhaps?). Crisdee's version brings it back to a sit-down-and-savor affair, though, layering a huge, brick-size slab brimming with herbed ground beef and chicken, sliced meatballs and stretchy mozzarella under marinara and Alfredo. Killer calories, I'm sure, but what an outrageous indulgence.

Don't look for much outside of the classics, in fact, including nicely executed eggplant and chicken Parmesan, satisfying spaghetti and meatballs, and spaghettini with clams. Only two entrees make a stretch -- a successful shrimp Diablo zipped up with Cajun seasoning, and pesto chicken pasta. Though the pesto dish isn't pretty -- pale green-sauced noodles, burnt-red sun-dried tomatoes, black olives and white chicken breast slices are harsh-looking company -- the flavor is friendly. Very cheesy pesto brings it all together, though I can't help wondering how some chopped artichoke hearts would send the dish over the top.

Almost two dozen hoagies round out the menu, though the sandwiches don't hit the same stellar stride as the pasta. A meatball sandwich is simply marginal, packing four hefty orbs in a soft roll with too little sauce. Cheesesteak has all the right ingredients -- excellent beef, shaved thin with mozzarella melted all the way through. There's simply not enough filling to fill us up. And a Buffalo chicken salad is strictly routine, generous with thin sliced breast, plus clean iceberg lettuce, carrot and celery sticks, purple cabbage, and shredded mozzarella with ranch dressing for dipping. The problem? The Buffalo sauce is completely boring, with no spice, no heat, and no reason to keep nibbling.

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