Riazzi's Italian Garden and Red Devil are practically the same restaurant, so I'm going to write about them that way. While naturally there are some distinguishing characteristics to these two unaffiliated businesses, there are just not deep-down-in-the-dente differences. The core concept of each is inexpensive Italian cuisine, and the restaurants serve virtually indistinguishable products and purposes.
I suppose what matters most in an appraisal of these restaurants is the awareness that food quality is far from the whole story. Part of me, you see, simply wants to report that the food in both of these places is flat-out ordinary, period, end of column. But part of me also realizes that these restaurants exist to satisfy a nonliteral hunger, one that originates in the heart.
Just take a second and remember the extremely informal neighborhood Italian restaurant that you and your family likely visited when you were a kid. While you're enjoying that glow for a moment, consider that Riazzi's and Red Devil are that place for more than three decades of Phoenicians. It is heretical to look too closely at food quality when you're dealing with personal feelings about such places.
What makes Riazzi's and Red Devil so ripe for discussion now, however, is that after amazingly long and successful runs on their respective neighborhood stages, they've each recently skipped to different parts of town. Actually, Red Devil still maintains its original McDowell location, but it has also poured significant resources into re-creating itself up on Bell Road. Riazzi's lost its base on Van Buren to pavement's progress and has pilgrimmed to Tempe.
So here's a new beginning for both of these redoubtable red sauce purveyors. Will there still be magic in the marinara? Considering the increased sophistication of today's pasta-plastered society, do these places still have the right stuffings?
Both do look good, particularly since neither has made the mistake of sacrificing casual family ambiance for thematic trendiness. Of the two, Riazzi's has the slightly more ambitious look, its owners having spruced up the old Cisco's building with rich purple carpeting, reupholstered booths, lots of polish and a good paint job. With its atrium ceiling and soft-glow wall lamps the restaurant does have a touch of romance, although the somewhat raucous kid-carrying crowd dispels a tendency toward too much dreaminess.
Red Devil has the spirit of a sports bar in the lounge and the look of a modern coffee shop throughout the rest of its ample dining space. I don't know if it's daily policy, but on a recent visit the lights are turned down to a lugubriously low level, making it seem like the restaurant is in the midst of a power failure. Since there's no table-top illumination, it's hard to read the menus, and the total effect is really quite weird.
Unfortunately, there's not much to spotlight on either menu. At Riazzi's, the best dish we sample is a Fried Ravioli appetizer of beautifully puffed-up and crispy pasta squares with exotically seasoned (nutmeg? allspice?) meat and cheese fillings, served with a side of the restaurant's smoky-herbal-tart tomato sauce. Red Devil's forte is clearly pizza, an aromatic New York-style thin-crust creation with gobs of gloppy cheese and a generous application of toppings.
Other reasonably bright spots on the respective bills of fare are Fettuccine Riazzi (perfectly cooked pasta swimming in a very decent downscale cream sauce) and Red Devil's Tortellini Alfredo ("good basic fare" is how a guest describes this ersatz Alfredo dish appealingly studded with lots of crisp broccoli fleurettes). Both restaurants serve successful minestrone soups, comparable thick and garlicky versions that get the job done. Because both offer house salads that are iceberg-boring, the soup is a good option when a choice is offered.
In both restaurants the list of larder lamentables is lengthy. Neither serves decent bread, handles the texture of a meatball particularly well, cooks the alcoholic bitterness out of its marsala sauce or recognizes when the flavor of a dish is totally flat (as in Riazzi's clam sauce or Red Devil's lasagna). You'll be able to deal with these dinners, but only if you're the sort of person who also sometimes appreciates the talents of Chef Boyardee.
Still, we've already established that food quality is not necessarily the ultimate trip in the Riazzi's and Red Devils of the world, any more than a tricycle is meant to be the ultimate ride. What needs to be determined here is whether either of these restaurants possesses the spirit of its previous incarnation. Is either the sort of place that might merit multigenerational family loyalty and generate enduring neighborhood bonhomie?
At this point, who can tell? If you look to human qualities for a clue--the areas of management and service--neither of these restaurants has yet hit an entirely satisfactory stride.
Riazzi's comes on with a cordial greeting by the host and an upbeat start from the service staff but, like the meal itself, matters deteriorate. Our at first personable waiter seems to grow harried as the meal progresses, and his increasingly slow and inattentive service gets on our nerves by dessert. I am also annoyed that my itemized check is not re-presented with my credit-card voucher so I can compare the totals, and that my guests and I must pass through a badly littered waiting area (presided over by a hostess smoking a cigarette) as we leave the restaurant.
Red Devil makes me mad as hell when I walk into the place. I've called the restaurant twice to make a reservation and have been informed both times that I "won't need" a reservation. Imagine my delight, upon arriving with a pregnant guest, in learning that there will be a half-hour wait in the lounge. Red Devil's good fortune lies in the fact that its bar stocks an excellent nonalcoholic beer (Clausthaler) and that, when we are seated, our waitress (Denise) turns in a perfectly knowledgeable and gracious performance.
In truth, though, neither of these restaurants yet seems capable of kindling anything like a sense of personal loyalty, much less a desire to sample their cuisines again. Another thirty years for either of these places? The crystal ball is, appropriately, dim.
Is there a place I'd heartily recommend for inexpensive Italian food? You bet. If cheap and sincere Sicilian-style sustenance is what you seek, look no farther than Tony's New Yorker.
As anyone who has ever eaten ("dined" is a much too fancy notion here) at Tony's New Yorker will cheerfully tell you, the place is not much to look at (unless you've got a thing for cheap wood paneling, plastic and formica). It's a place where the best term to describe the lounge is "scuzzy," although this does not prevent the booking of some of the Valley's best local bands. On the whole though, if all you're looking for is ambiance, I'd suggest you go make the Olive Garden people a little richer.
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I don't wish to damn TNY's food by creating huge expectations, but there's definitely a sharper palate presiding over this place than at others of its kind. Among the virtues one finds here: a subtle herbal tomato sauce that enhances rather than dominates; meatballs that include enough breadcrumbs to make them tender and not so much spice that they lead to gastrointestinal rage; fennel-rich sausages that are first blanched until tender then sauteed until brown, which is the ace way to do it; lasagna and ravioli fillings that are made with a perfectly balanced mixture of mozzarella and ricotta; and cannoli filling that pours out of both ends of the crisp pastry and explodes in a profusion of chocolate chips. There's also excellent New York-style pizza that's even gloppier than Red Devil's, and dinners come, as Italian dinners are meant to, with oven-browned garlic bread served with additional tomato sauce for sopping.
If it's true that ordinary food doesn't stop an inexpensive Italian restaurant from becoming a favorite, however, it must also be true that good food doesn't guarantee popularity. But Tony's New Yorker does make the other pieces of the puzzle fit. The keys are a lack of airs and exceptional good will.
You won't find veal marsala or too many mentions of "pasta" around this joint, but you will find wonderfully priced all-you-can-eat nights (Monday spaghetti $3.95; Tuesday lasagna $4.95). You won't find fancy furniture or appointments, but your kids can be kids without wrecking anybody's dinner. You won't find photos of famous Italian stage personalities telling the owner what a delightful guy he is, but you will find lots of photos of the ordinary people who eat there.
And that is TNY's best stategy, of course. Treat the ordinary guy like you're glad to see him and he'll always be glad to see you, even if you serve ordinary food. It's conceivable that I just think Tony's New Yorker serves better food than those other places. But with its talent for making customers feel welcome, I certainly do think so.