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There's plenty in the way of high-profile restaurants in Phoenix, although if you're really into food, you also have to fine-tune your radar for inconspicuous hole-in-the-wall gems, off-the-beaten-path indie eateries, and humble mom-and-pop spots.
But how often do you literally get to meet mom and pop?
At La Piccola Cucina — a fast-casual Mediterranean cafe tucked into a lovely restored 1924 house in central Phoenix — you'll do just that, and you might even feel like a part of the family.
2241 N. 7th St.
Phoenix, AZ 85006
Region: Central Phoenix
Rare is the day when you can walk into this place and not encounter gregarious owner Andy Pappas, a kind-hearted ex-New Yorker whose résumé includes not only a variety of jobs in the restaurant industry, but also acting, singing, publishing, and radio. (Full disclosure: He used to host a show on KFYI called Taste of Arizona, and back in 2001, I was an occasional call-in guest. But my spots were unpaid, and we never met in person.) From the late '80s until 2000, he owned another La Piccola Cucina, at 106th Street and Broadway in Manhattan.
Pappas is a true character, one of those unforgettable personalities who can turn an otherwise ordinary experience into something unexpectedly fun. Did I mention that he often bursts into song? Yeah, he really does — and he might even personally serenade you. The first time I visited La Piccola Cucina, just days after it opened in March, I witnessed this Renaissance man simultaneously pull a perfect shot of espresso and belt out a few lines of Italian opera.
I've never heard his wife Debbie bust out a tune, but she's equally friendly, a motherly type who's happy to talk about the food and make recommendations. During her 30 years as a flight attendant, she and Andy got to eat at restaurants all around the world.
The two of them provide plenty of atmosphere, but the restaurant itself is pretty damn cute, too — the result of 13 months of renovations. There's original wood flooring, glossy, cream-colored ornamental tin ceilings, handsome tables and chairs that look like they were plucked from a European café, and even an old fireplace in the former living room, which is now home to a gelato case and shelves of imported cookies, crackers, olive oil, balsamic, and other gourmet items. Black Mokarabia umbrella tables fill the cozy front patio, which is screened off from Seventh Street traffic by a row of leafy plants.
La Piccola Cucina's simple menu is available to eat in or take out: half a dozen huge sandwiches piled on crisp ciabatta bread, a rotating list of meats and side dishes from the refrigerated case, and plenty of desserts. There's no alcohol — yet — but along with a variety of coffee and tea drinks, you can also choose from a quirky selection of bottled beverages, including Dry Soda in flavors such as kumquat, lavender, and lemongrass. (Once they get a beer and wine license, Pappas tells me, he'll start hosting wine dinners.)
Order at the counter, and they'll deliver food to your table. In the case of the pre-cooked stuff from the case, it's all speed-heated in a high-tech oven and arranged on a nice dinner plate. A set price gets you a choice of meat and two sides for about 10 bucks, which is one of the most affordable ways to fill up in the area.
To be sure, it doesn't match up to food that's cooked to order, but it's still homemade, and quite tasty. New York and San Francisco have joints like this in practically every neighborhood, so it's about time central Phoenix has a place where you can grab an easy dinner.
Meat entrees were generously sized, and I found myself taking home leftovers a few times. An order of herb-coated chicken was a huge, succulent cutlet big enough for two people. Prime sirloin wasn't so much about sharing, although it was still a good amount of garlicky, deliciously salty meat. I prefer my medium-rare closer to rare than medium — which this wasn't — but it did retain some juiciness. And Mediterranean meatloaf, made with veal and pork, was served in thick, moist slices, slathered with sweet red tomato sauce.
Although La Piccola Cucina's offerings change slightly from day to day, those items were usually available when I visited. I've also sampled some nice roasted lamb that occasionally makes an appearance, as well as rosemary-accented pork tenderloin.
With the side dishes, I've found some favorites among more than a dozen constant offerings. Sautéed spinach with slivers of garlic never gets old. Same goes with grilled eggplant and grilled asparagus, tender and lightly charred. Ratatouille was as flavorful as it was colorful, while spinach pies, wrapped in paper-thin phyllo dough, were hard not to inhale.
I wasn't so fond of the chile-flecked potatoes, though — somehow the flavor of the fridge was still evident. Israeli couscous was much better, thanks to sweet dried tomatoes and yellow peppers, as was a jumble of chilled red beets with sliced onions.
As for the list of sandwiches, I'm working my way through it, but so far so good. I'm hooked on the one with prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, roasted red peppers, arugula, and fig balsamic dressing. It's a great flavor combination, and the prosciutto is really top-notch. Canned Italian tuna gets an unusually scrumptious treatment, with goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, capers, arugula, and lemon-olive oil dressing. And it's easy to love the garlic-laden broiled sirloin with Gorgonzola, caramelized onions, and roasted tomatoes.