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CUISINES FROM A MALL

Roaming tourists with minicams. Well-preserved older women resembling TV psychiatrists. Tables of young, upwardly mobile people dressed in suits and ties, cocktail sheaths, gold jewelry and French braids. Out-of-town businessmen relaxing in plaid shirts and Levi's Dockers after a hard day of conferencing in Phoenix.

As evening falls, these are the sights you'll see at Arizona Center's fraternal-twin restaurants, Lombardi's and Sam's Cafe. Sure, you can go for the food, it's palatable and adequate. But the real draw here is the people-watching, the opportunity to put your finger on the strongest beat of the weak urban pulse that is downtown Phoenix. Call it your one chance to experience the cafe-hopping anything-can-happen feeling of more concentrated cities. The one place in town where you have a legitimate chance of running into some long-lost acquaintance from somewhere else, here on vacation or business.

Though Lombardi's is Italian and Sam's Cafe Southwestern, the restaurants are pretty much on a par in terms of food, service and atmosphere. You could determine your selection by coin toss and not suffer great disappointment. In fact, on two successive April evenings of dining at Arizona Center, my accomplice and I observe more than a few parties drifting from Sam's Cafe to Lombardi's, gesturing at the posted menus and whispering to each other as they try to determine what kind of food they want. I can't be sure, but I think I heard some of them muttering "heads or tails" as they stuck their hands in their pockets for loose change. At least, that's what it sounded like.

Some may give up all pretensions of fine dining altogether and head for the second-floor food court. This is not such a bad idea--the court's one of the nicest I've ever seen, and you can't beat the lemonade at Hot Dog on a Stick.

The atmosphere is most pleasant if you sit out on the flagstone patio of Sam's Cafe or Lombardi's, which I strongly suggest you do when the weather is nice. Here, on the southeast side of the Shops at Arizona Center, you are shielded from the setting sun. Folks with babies, toddlers and one on the way stroll between the mirror-image restaurants and into the development's manicured gardens. A tall grove of palm trees is in view. The trickle and splash from the nearby multi-tiered fountain soothes and relaxes jittery city nerves.

Unless, of course, you sit too close to the water, as we do one night at Lombardi's.

This is not a good idea. As soon as we are seated, the overpowering smell of chlorine accosts our olfactories, threatening to obscure any delicious Italian aromas that might waft our way. When we mention this to our bloodshot-eyed waiter, he commiserates. "Yeah, I know," he says. "I'm allergic to chlorine. I sneeze and my eyes water. Do you want to move?" By this time our noses have begun to work again, the inhibiting effect of the chlorine has begun to wane. Though our glass-topped table has a light film of moisture on it, we stay where we are. We're just fine, we tell him.

Our young, male, busy waiter at Lombardi's is representative of most of the waitstaff at these two restaurants. Nobody appears to be in the business for the long haul. We are serviced, but not served. What we order is brought, but beyond that, nothing is suggested, no wants anticipated. At Lombardi's, we must request bread, beg for water refills and remind our waiter that we might want to order dessert and coffee after we finish our entrees. In his defense, he has a lot of tables.

As does our waiter at Sam's Cafe. Though he manages to juggle all of his parties with relative ease, his burden of chores disrupts the ideal flow of our meal. We watch as he delays bringing food to and clearing dishes from our table in order to comply with the demands of his other customers. The situation is unfortunate. He is trying hard.

As far as the food goes, the Italian offerings at Lombardi's are good, but not outstanding; ditto for the Southwestern fare at Sam's Cafe. There are, however, items to recommend at both restaurants. At Lombardi's, I favor the razor-thin carpaccio. Flavored with fresh-grated Parmesan and mustard sauce, this appetizer comes with a nutty arugula salad which complements and enhances the raw beef. Another winner is the penne all'Arrabbiata. These tubes of pasta in a mildly spiced tomato sauce flavored with pepperoncini and ripe olives are surprisingly good.

For dessert, I'd be hard-pressed to pick between the tiramisu disguised as luscious mascarpone cheesecake dusted with cocoa powder and the chocolate terrine sauced with Grand Marnier. Both are wonderful, and would be even better had our waiter deigned to bring me a full cup of coffee with them. Over at Sam's Cafe, our waiter tells us the dense poblano-chicken chowder has an avid following. Upon tasting, I understand why. The thick, creamy soup is spicy and satisfying. Cheese-laden, garlicky Indian slap bread with fresh salsa reminds me of white pizza; add a salad and it would be a perfect meal for one. Finally, for dessert I recommend Sam's crisp-fried bunuelo with cinnamon-vanilla ice cream. It is sweet, satiating and most comforting.

I cannot tell you what it is like to dine inside these establishments. I have not done it. The weather is simply too lovely on the nights we visit. But I can tell you what I observe through their large windows. Sam's Cafe is done in ponderosa pine. Bunches of red chiles hang here and there. The restaurant's "Southwestern feel" is extended onto the patio through the use of color: Nylon director's chairs are dusty "Painted Desert" pink, dishes are festive imitation Fiestaware. Ole.

The interior at Lombardi's is upscale trattoria, with lots of black and white and a hint of brass. Italian tiles cover the floor. An open kitchen is the focal centerpoint. At night the lights are lowered inside and the smells from the oven, I'm told, are divine.

Of course, no matter what kind of success Sam's Cafe and Lombardi's are experiencing now, the big test awaiting them will take place over the long hot summer. Oh, I've no doubt they'll be around in the fall. They have too big a captive audience to fail. The question is: Will the rest of us venture downtown to eat at these establishments and stroll through Arizona Center once temperatures of less than 100 degrees are only a vague memory? Or will the heat-retaining qualities of asphalt deter us from visiting downtown at night?

In the meantime, count me among the former skeptics of the Rouse Company's wonder mall. I set aside the company's persistent press mailings and successfully avoided the parade. But I've been won over.

Right now, Arizona Center is to Phoenix what renovated Mill Avenue is to Tempe: a place to congregate with fellow citizens and visitors alike. I love to come here for dinner on a balmy night, then walk off some of those calories window-gazing. I like it even better when the shops are open and I can buy things. Yeah, the food at Sam's Cafe and Lombardi's isn't the greatest in Phoenix, but it will do. The important thing is simply being here, now, where the people-watching is unparalleled.

I know it's only a commercial mall, but I like it, like it, yes I do.

Lombardi's, 455 North Third Street at Van Buren in Arizona Center, Phoenix, 257-8323. Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Saturday; Dinner, 5 to 11 p.m., Monday through Thursday, 5 to midnight, Friday and Saturday, 3 to 10 p.m., Sunday; Brunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sunday.

Sam's Cafe, 455 North Third Street at Van Buren in Arizona Center, Phoenix, 252-3545. Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week; Dinner, 5 to 11 p.m., Monday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to midnight, Friday and Saturday, 5 to 9 p.m., Sunday; Brunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sunday.

The real draw here is the people-watching.

The overpowering smell of chlorine threatens to obscure any delicious Italian aromas that might waft our way.

We are serviced, but not served. What we order is brought, but beyond that, nothing is suggested, no wants anticipated.

As far as the food goes, the Italian offerings at Lombardi's are good, but not outstanding; ditto for the Southwestern fare at Sam's Cafe.


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