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Let me share a little secret with you: Journalists love to eat and eat well, but we're also notoriously cheap. In part, this has to do with the fact that almost no one gets rich off scribbling for a living. And probably, deservedly so, if you judge by what's sometimes scribbled these days. Nonetheless, newspaper people, without a fault, have delusions of grandeur. And folks with delusions of grandeur and limited resources generally do not pick up the check.
Indeed, one of the most amusing moments of dining with my colleagues comes when the bill's brought around, and everyone roundly ignores it for as long as is possible in the hopes some schmuck (usually the one writing this column) will relent and grab it. The moment invariably reminds me of that classic skit performed by the patron saint of all skinflints, Jack Benny. In it, the comedic cheapskate of yesteryear is challenged by an armed thief with the demand, "Your money or your life!" A long, uncomfortable pause ensues. Prodded by the thief, Benny finally replies, "Don't rush me, I'm thinking it over."
Most print journos can empathize with Mr. Benny's dilemma, though I'm sure our more prosperous cousins in TV would think us mad for doing so. By William Randolph Hearst's ghost, all we ask for is a cheap meal, well-prepared and easy on the tummy! Perhaps that's why so many of New Times' writers and editors lunch and sup at Giuseppe's Italian Kitchen, a little neighborhood pasta joint at 28th Street and Indian School, where, for less than $20, you can chow down like John Goodman after a 10-day fast.
2824 E. Indian School Road
Phoenix, AZ 85016
Region: East Phoenix
Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday, 3:30 to 9 p.m.; closed Sunday, 602-381-1237.
Many are the Dutch treats I've enjoyed with colleagues and bosses at this charming, low-maintenance eatery where the walls are hung with classic Italian pasta adverts, and the tables are decorated with Grey Goose or Vox vodka bottles converted into vases. The tablecloths are made of plastic, for easy cleanup, and instead of menus, patrons consult blackboards inscribed with the many Italian dishes offered. Though the restaurant serves water, tea, sodas, espresso and cappuccino, it's strictly BYOB when it comes to wine or beer, with a piddling $3 corkage. Thus the damage Giuseppe's can do on our anorexic writers' wallets is limited.
A "bucket" of spaghetti and meatballs -- that's five portions of spaghetti and meatballs -- costs but $24, and people come in with their own jumbo pots to fill up and take home. This bucket gimmick might not be so much of a surprise if the quality were subpar, but on the contrary, Giuseppe's has the best plate of spaghetti and meatballs in Phoenix, with a marinara sauce that'd make a modern-day Roman kiss Giuseppe's black-and-white checkered floor like it was his mama's cheek. The meatballs are fat fists of ground sirloin, which, unlike many I've had elsewhere in the Valley, are not over-salted or over-seasoned. And the pasta is magnìfico. On Fridays and Saturdays, it's made fresh on the premises. Otherwise, Giuseppe's uses a good Italian pasta, cooked just soft enough to chew with ease.
But even if you eschew the bucket o' pasta, you can eat like a Borgia pope for a minor outlay of ducats. I adore all of the appetizers I've had at Giuseppe's, including the suppli di riso, two brown balls of mozzarella and risotto that are breaded, fried and served on a plate with some of Giuseppe's delicious marinara sauce to the side. The marinara is prepared there each morning, and you can actually savor the sweetness of the crushed tomatoes, whereas with other Italian spots in town, they like to overdo it with the add-ins to the point that you can't even taste the ruby red fruit. I suspect this is a strategy implemented at such establishments to hide the fact that the marinara is not fresh. But Giuseppe's has no need for such subterfuge.
Another of my faves in the appetizer category is the fried eggplant, which also makes terrific use of Giuseppe's marinara, with thin breaded strips of eggplant bathed in the sauce and topped with melted mozzarella. Giuseppe's antipasto is above average, with lettuce, onions, carrots, Italian ham, pepperoncini (those pickled Tuscan peppers I love so much), wrinkled black Sicilian olives, roasted peppers, and sliced tomatoes, all topped with olive oil, vinegar and spices. Then there's the simple yet exquisite prosciutto and melon, cured Italian ham wrapped around long, sticky slices of pale orange cantaloupe. Why isn't this last item on more Italian menus in this city, I wonder? Still, if it were, I'm willing to bet that we'd have to pay through the proboscis for it, whereas, at Giuseppe's, you can get it for under a fiver.
All the snooty, high-end Eye-tie places in Phoenix must really loathe Giuseppe's, because this combination of authenticity and value gives the lie to Giuseppe's Armani-clad competitors. If one goes out on a regular basis, suddenly you have a yardstick by which you can judge Italian eateries. In light of Giuseppe's ricotta-rich lasagna or its spaghetti alla carbonara, made of pancetta, sautéed onion and beaten egg, so many other places are simply found wanting. For example, I'd put Giuseppe's creamy, rose-hued cardinale sauce up against any pricey pasta served at Daniel's or il Palazzetto. And Giuseppe's bruschetta is quite unlike the anemic offerings I've run into elsewhere in this city. Atop nice-sized round slices of this Italian garlic toast, you can choose from such toppings as fresh tomato with basil, sautéed tri-colored peppers, pecorino romano marinated in olive oil and basil, and, the best of the lot, slow-cooked chunks of pork on a bed of marinara and topped with melted mozzarella, so it's almost like eating a mini pizza.