Unsung Heroes, Pasta and Pizza

Small wonders greet adventurous diners in Tempe.

Desserts change daily, though chocolate chip cannelloni are a frequent offering. It's good, too, more of an unsweetened tortilla shell than crepe, plugged with sugary custard and sprinkled with powdered sugar.

Crisdee's isn't perfect. The restaurant recently changed its menu, adding more pastas. This is good. It also lowered its prices a bit -- this is wonderful. But in the fallout, the freebie dinner salad was lost. Instead, for an additional $2.50, we get a nice enough toss of iceberg, red cabbage, carrot, black olive, tomato, mozzarella and onion. Down home Italian without a salad is chintzy. Other quibbles: The fungi come from a can (though it's a quality can). Shrimp are little, approaching bay variety. Garlic toast is just so-so.

But at this cozy type of place, and at these prices, what did we expect?

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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NY54 Deli

A New Yorker who keeps quiet? Now that is unexpected. But that's what we find at the seven-month-old NY54 Deli, owned by transplanted back-Easterner Darren Pascale. I haven't seen any mention of the place; I only trip across it when stopping in to visit an old favorite a few shops down, Zipangu AmerAsian restaurant.

But if Pascale is speaking softly, he's carrying a big sandwich. Apparently, the deli has got its fans -- there are autographed pictures of Channel 10's Rick D'Amico, Ron Hoon and Kathleen Bade on the back wall. Count me as another supporter -- everything I sample at NY54 Deli is superior sustenance.

The simple storefront is small, just a few black and cherry wood tables, an order counter and classy framed prints of the New York Yankees, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Lou Gehrig. It's quiet, too, with pleasant service and a restive air even under a big-screen TV playing ESPN. And -- how un-New York -- it's sparkling clean, from the crisply plastic-wrapped meats, cheese and salads in the cooler to the elegant white butcher paper that wraps each sandwich into a snug bundle.

NY54's menu is short, featuring 16 sandwiches (17, if you count the "That's a' My Way" custom choice), 10 side salads and four desserts. The emphasis is on high-grade ingredients -- all meats and cheeses are Boar's Head Brand (meal packaging includes BHB logo stickers, in case we forget), and the bread arrives from a local purveyor who remains a secret, but clearly knows his craft. (Think the Boar's Head boast is bull? You'd be wrong. There is a difference, with no scraps or extenders, no artificial flavors or colors in the premium meats.)

One thing we do expect from a New York-style eatery is large portions, and NY54 delivers. The Sinatra sandwich brings fistfuls of succulent, whisper-thin shaved pastrami topped with zingy roasted red peppers, lacy provolone, fresh chopped lettuce and a dab of spicy mustard. A Long Islander, meanwhile, piles on intriguingly sweet pesto-Parmesan ham and mozzarella, while the Park Avenue is an enormous nosh of peppermill turkey, lean roast beef, Swiss and sprouts.

Fans of Italian subs will find much to cheer in the Mulberry Street, layering capocolla, Genoa salami, pepperoni, mozzarella and Italian roasted red peppers on that wonderfully squishy white, sesame-seed-crusted hoagie roll.

NY54's signature sub is the 54, natch, but get there early in the day -- the primo Parma prosciutto goes fast. This gourmet meat is imported from Italy, and retails for an impressive $19.54 a pound. Here it's topped with picante provolone (aged 90 days), smothered with Italian roasted red peppers, lettuce, tomato, onion and deli mustard. Great grub.

I'm also partial to The Boss, bringing chicken cutlets pounded thin, lightly breaded and fried in extra virgin olive oil, then dressed with lettuce, tomato, onion, mayo. It's more interesting than The Rockefeller, your basic chunk chicken salad with a whisper of mayo and a few chops of celery. I also miss the point of a 5 Boroughs sandwich. It's special, I'm told, because it contains five homemade Italian meatballs (as compared to most other places' four?). But quantity doesn't account for size -- these are small critters, which, while of excellent firm-soft consistency, need a lot more sauce to be more remarkable.

New York cheesecake is stunning, though, properly leaden thick and creamy, delicately swirled with fresh fruit purée.

So what sells a restaurant? Expensive advertising campaigns? Celebrity chef status and fancy decor? Or could it be just the really good food that makes dining out worth paying for, no matter the setting? You'd expect as much, wouldn't you?

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