Out for the Holidays

Our Gang Cafe, 9832 North Seventh Street, Phoenix, 870-4122. Hours: Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 4:30 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 4:30 to 11 p.m.

Today's Jeopardy! answer: Sleep 'til noon, whine about boredom and eat a week's worth of groceries as an afternoon snack.

The correct question: What do kids like to do on their winter break?
Every parent knows that feeding perpetually hungry kids during school vacation is a never-ending chore. "How about a turkey salad sandwich?" I say, pointing with all the enthusiasm I can muster at the plastic tub of green stuff that's been bubbling in the back of the refrigerator since the day after Thanksgiving. My wife proposes another mealtime option, suggesting that the children make a festive dinner from the bowls of hard candies and Chex party mix in the living room. Hearing this, our offspring narrow their eyes and fix us with the same sort of malevolent glare that Erik and Lyle once laid on Ma and Pa Menendez.

Eating out is a better holiday alternative. I start out with one inflexible ground rule: no McFood in any form. Then, I go through my check list.

First, I look for a place that caters to families. That means a spilled glass of water, a high-decibel conversation about the best cures for preteen acne or a sudden flurry of jabs, hooks and uppercuts won't throw the staff or fellow diners off stride.

Second, although they say you can't put a price on family togetherness, I can: ten bucks a person.

Third, while it's not fair to insist that kid-friendly fare climb to gourmet heights, I don't think it's too much to demand that it reach a level of, say, reasonably tasty.

So, armed with wife and two kids, 40 bucks and scaled-back critical standards, I went out in search of a pizza/pasta/sandwich family dinner.

The first stop was Our Gang Cafe, about which I've been hearing lots of good word of mouth for several months. It's tucked away in a low-profile strip mall that probably doesn't attract a two-second glance from most drivers whizzing past on Seventh Street. Too bad. If you've got kids in the back seat, this place is worth slowing down for.

It's not an old-fashioned, neighborhood Italian restaurant. It is, however, designed to look like an old-fashioned, neighborhood Italian restaurant. That translates into red-checked curtains, black-checked oilcloth on the tables, and "Volare" and Sinatra on the music system. Obligatory cans of scungilli, bottles of oil and jars of peppers line the room. The main room also features a small fountain, as well as a sixfoot Statue of Liberty holding a pizza box. You can't overlook the Our Gang motif, either--lots of stills and posters.

One bonus is the patio, warmed by a fireplace and heaters. The surrounding walls have been done up to look like a Little Italy tenement. It's an effective touch.

The food at this easygoing place is just as effective--and cheap and hearty. Take the appetizers. Crunchy, cheesy fried ravioli come right out of the fryer, without a greasy patina. Focaccia is a more filling option: warm, puffy bread sprinkled with cheese and a ladleful of rosemary, accompanied by olive oil for dunking.

(It's amazing how the dipping bowl of olive oil, once the signature of higher-end Italian dining, has penetrated even low-priced Americanized Italian restaurants. It's a promising sign.)

Main dishes won't astonish anyone with their novelty. But if your kids were interested in novelty, they'd be at home cleaning their rooms, watching PBS or putting away their laundry.

Our Gang Cafe puts together a first-rate pizza. We opted for one of the nine specialty models, a New York white pizza fashioned with ricotta, mozzarella, Romano and Parmesan cheeses, spiked with enough garlic to keep the werewolves at bay until Memorial Day. A chewy, NewYork-style crust adds to this sauceless pizza's charms.

Eggplant parmigiana is reasonably well-prepared. That's because the thinly sliced eggplant isn't fried into an oily, mushy pulp. Instead, it retains its texture and flavor. The indifferent sauce, however, would have benefited from some oregano or basil punch.

The calzone here looks like something out of the old neighborhood. It's huge, fresh and tasty. And, unlike so many inferior local versions, it's crammed full of cheese and diced plum tomatoes, not hot air. Most folks probably won't be able to finish it in one sitting. At $5.95, the price is certainly right, too.

Baked tortellini delivers warm Italian comfort food on chilly Valley winter evenings. First, the meat-stuffed pasta is cooked to aldente specs. Half of it gets bathed in tomato sauce, the other half in Alfredo sauce. Then it's all covered with cheese and baked in the oven. Fresh garlic rolls provide enjoyable diversion.

The only off note came from the Bronx Delight, a hefty, oven-baked sandwich filled with sliced sausage and tons of peppers and onions. The sausage was much too bland for my taste, and the texture didn't seem quite right, either. However, the wonderful side of crunchy homemade potato chips that came with it almost made up for the sandwich's shortcomings.

Supplier-provided desserts are typical kid-pleasers. Both the chocolate-hazelnut tartufo (ice cream in a chocolate shell) and slab of spumoni will send the children home smiling. So will the free refills of soda. (Oktoberfest and Double Diamond beer on tap, meanwhile, ought to put mom and dad in a good mood, too.)

Even the most saintly parents can get frazzled during the two-week Christmas school break. Our Gang Cafe can restore your family's holiday mood, without breaking your family's budget.

Trenino's Scottsdale Station, 6910 East Shea, Scottsdale, 905-5200. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week.

If you want to see Hollywood artifacts, you go to Planet Hollywood. If you want rock-music ambiance, you go to Hard Rock Cafe. If you want train memorabilia, you head to the new Trenino's Scottsdale Station.

This is a theme restaurant, and the theme is choo-choo. (It's not a chain, I was told, although it certainly seems to have franchise possibilities.) The place itself is designed to look likea high-ceilinged train depot. In the center ofthe room is an elaborate model-train setup, with several lines running across the plastic countryside, up and down hills and through tunnels. It's mesmerizing, even if you're not a kid.

Ledges around the room are loaded with railroad knickknacks: lanterns, shovels, spittoons, wrenches. The walls are adorned with railroad ads. A colorful mural of a locomotive spread across a map of the U.S. rests atop the open kitchen. And signs on stall doors in the restrooms advise patrons to "kindly flush after each use except when train is standing in station."

Needless to say, kids find all this fascinating. They wander all over the place, and nobody seems to mind. And mom and dad get a few moments of occasional peace. Management also provides crayons and things to draw on when the little ones are at the table.

The setting isn't the only kid-friendly part of the operation. So is most of the food.

What do kids like? The same thing adults do: deep-fried stuff. So the menu offers appetizer staples including fried mozzarella sticks, fried zucchini strips and fried chile-pepper poppers stuffed with cream cheese. While I'm pretty certain the kitchen help isn't spending prep time battering the mozzarella, slicing the zucchini or spooning cheese into a chile, these starters dobenefit from being freshly fried and relatively greaseless. And if the adults in the group crave something that hasn't bubbled in hot oil, they can peel a whole artichoke, filled with breadcrumbs and cheese.

Most of the meals come with soup or salad. The minestrone is way better than it has to be, thick with green beans, zucchini and red beans. The greenery is somewhat less enchanting: a pile of iceberg lettuce topped with croutons and two olives. You can also pass the time waiting for your entrees by nibbling on tasty, thin garlic loaves, accompanied by--you guessed it--a cruet of olive oil and a plate to pour it onto.

And pass the time you will. The food takes quite a while getting to the table. Of course, sometimes that's good. Pizzas, for example, are made to order, and take about a half-hour. I'm not sure the wait is quite worth it, though, especially if you're sharing a booth with squirming youngsters. When the pizza does arrive, it's nothing special, and somewhat light on the cheese.

According to the menu, the pasta is made fresh daily. The noodle dishes do seem to be the best bets here. The stuffed shells feature four jumbo specimens overflowing with cheese, in an inoffensive marinara sauce that doesn't get in the way. Shrimp pasta, the most expensive dish at $9.95, brought 14 surprisingly tasty crustaceans atop a pile of linguini (not fettuccine, as the menu promised), mixed with cheese and festooned with broccoli, zucchini and mushrooms. (Note to parents: If your kid orders this, as mine did, she will pass you the broccoli, zucchini and mushrooms.)

Veal parmigiana is routine, an ample portion of nondescript breaded veal that has no particular character. It is preferable, however, to the hefty, green-pepper-laden Italian beef-and-sausage sandwich combo. The problem is the mushy sausage, which lacks any shred of ethnic oomph. Crunchy, sizzling fries help mitigate the disappointment.

Desserts will make the kids happy. The chocolate-chocolate cake is quite rich, and the tart lemon Italian ice is puckeringly refreshing.

Just as refreshing is the on-the-ball staff. The manager came over to us during the long interval between appetizers and entrees and apologized for the wait. To make up for it, he gave us dessert on the house. It's a gesture many pricier local restaurants could learn from.

If you've got antsy, hungry kids driving you up a wall these days, a trip to Trenino's Scottsdale Station may be just the antidote. I say: All aboard.

Our Gang Cafe:
Fried ravioli
Eggplant parmigiana
Ten-inch New York
white pizza
Baked tortellini

Trenino's Scottsdale Station:
Mozzarella sticks
Cheese pizza (small)
Stuffed shells
Veal parmigiana


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