Chef Razz Kamnitzer grumbles that chain restaurants use glittery marketing instead of good food to lure customers in the door. What bothers him the most is not that he doesn't have an advertising budget equal to that of the Olive Garden, but that the public believes the packaged puffery.
Chef Christopher Gross dreams of opening a tiny eatery in an obscure location -- sans expensive decor, lacking high-profile publicity, with the emphasis strictly on great food. He'd call his place "No Expectations." When diners come into a hole-in-the-wall and discover what they least anticipate -- good food -- the surprise makes the experience that much better, he says.
Crisdee's and NY54 Deli
Toasted cheese ravioli: $5.29
Shrimp scampi: $9.89
Chicken cannelloni: $6.79
Cheesesteak (half): $4.75
1402 South Priest, Tempe, 480-377-8971. Hours: Lunch and dinner, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
5 Boroughs: $5.49
Long Islander: $5.99
New York Cheesecake: $4.25
1006 East Warner, Tempe, 480-839-6954. Hours: Lunch and dinner, Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The two local chefs are keenly aware of how important marketing is in a highly competitive restaurant industry. Yet they've also discovered how the gauze of glamour can become suffocating -- call yourself a master chef, and suddenly your customers expect to be dining on masterpieces. That simple piece of ahi, which would be celebrated at any lesser-known restaurant, goes under the microscope when a restaurant becomes a name destination, and suddenly a chef is leaping over himself to live up to his press.
Then there are restaurants like Crisdee's. Open about eight months, Crisdee's hasn't made any marketing statement I'm aware of. It's not in a great location -- tucked on the edge of an industrial park area off a feeder street in Tempe. And it won't wow anyone with its exterior -- just another white box, accented with hunter green paint. Its name, derived from a combination of owners Christopher and Deanna Bimer, gives us no clue of what type of food to expect.
Yet for everything it may be doing wrong in a traditional business plan, Crisdee's is doing one thing very right: serving delicious, home-style Italian food. And yes, it's much better than we would expect.
Its interior speaks little of the type of food that emerges from the kitchen -- this place looks like it's been lifted from the set of Cheers, all dark wood, '50s-era posters, stained-glass accents and a big cozy bar that practically screams for some ferns. Lighting is dark, carpet is dark, and music is, believe it or not, upbeat swing and big band classics.
But when the plates are set down, there's no doubt we're in for excellent Italian food. Another most welcome surprise: Most of the big dishes are priced under $8.
I've eaten enough bad bar food to raise the hair on the back of my neck when I see offerings like toasted cheese ravioli. So often they're sullen briquettes and a complete waste of stomach space. But the versions here are superb, bringing a half-dozen golden nuggets stuffed with what tastes like seasoned ricotta and mozzarella, sprinkled with fresh Parmesan and slicked with chunky marinara and creamy Alfredo sauces.
The small (seven-inch) pizza makes another fine starter, with four healthy slices of thick-crust pie. The Crisdee's combo covers all the favorites, with a crust-to-crust bed of pepperoni topped with black olive, sausage rounds, green pepper, onion and juicy monster mushroom slices.
The bulk of the menu is pasta, so it's surprising that the Bimers don't make their own on-site. They've got a quality purveyor, though, and it's fresh, not that dried stuff.
Spaghettini pasta is fine fare, even with its silly name of "I've Got You Under My Scampi." A huge, parsley-dusted dish brims with the tender noodles, decked out with shrimp sautéed in a well-balanced buttery lemon-garlic sauce.
This is a generous kitchen, too. Two cannelloni are burrito-size beasts, while remaining feathery light crepes stuffed with a terrific mixture of herbed ground chicken, chopped mushroom and spinach, and buckets of ricotta cheese. They're gently baked and bathed in a vibrantly spicy tomato sauce, draped with creamy Alfredo and sprinkled with fresh grated Parmesan. A Big Italian dish is as filling as it sounds, too, teaming a truckload of mild Italian sausage, red onion, mushroom and bell pepper with al dente penne and marinara.
Lasagna, meanwhile, has become a lost love of sorts -- the classic dish is increasingly difficult to find outside of casual delis and chains (too common for today's diners, perhaps?). Crisdee's version brings it back to a sit-down-and-savor affair, though, layering a huge, brick-size slab brimming with herbed ground beef and chicken, sliced meatballs and stretchy mozzarella under marinara and Alfredo. Killer calories, I'm sure, but what an outrageous indulgence.
Don't look for much outside of the classics, in fact, including nicely executed eggplant and chicken Parmesan, satisfying spaghetti and meatballs, and spaghettini with clams. Only two entrees make a stretch -- a successful shrimp Diablo zipped up with Cajun seasoning, and pesto chicken pasta. Though the pesto dish isn't pretty -- pale green-sauced noodles, burnt-red sun-dried tomatoes, black olives and white chicken breast slices are harsh-looking company -- the flavor is friendly. Very cheesy pesto brings it all together, though I can't help wondering how some chopped artichoke hearts would send the dish over the top.
Almost two dozen hoagies round out the menu, though the sandwiches don't hit the same stellar stride as the pasta. A meatball sandwich is simply marginal, packing four hefty orbs in a soft roll with too little sauce. Cheesesteak has all the right ingredients -- excellent beef, shaved thin with mozzarella melted all the way through. There's simply not enough filling to fill us up. And a Buffalo chicken salad is strictly routine, generous with thin sliced breast, plus clean iceberg lettuce, carrot and celery sticks, purple cabbage, and shredded mozzarella with ranch dressing for dipping. The problem? The Buffalo sauce is completely boring, with no spice, no heat, and no reason to keep nibbling.
Desserts change daily, though chocolate chip cannelloni are a frequent offering. It's good, too, more of an unsweetened tortilla shell than crepe, plugged with sugary custard and sprinkled with powdered sugar.
Crisdee's isn't perfect. The restaurant recently changed its menu, adding more pastas. This is good. It also lowered its prices a bit -- this is wonderful. But in the fallout, the freebie dinner salad was lost. Instead, for an additional $2.50, we get a nice enough toss of iceberg, red cabbage, carrot, black olive, tomato, mozzarella and onion. Down home Italian without a salad is chintzy. Other quibbles: The fungi come from a can (though it's a quality can). Shrimp are little, approaching bay variety. Garlic toast is just so-so.
But at this cozy type of place, and at these prices, what did we expect?
A New Yorker who keeps quiet? Now that is unexpected. But that's what we find at the seven-month-old NY54 Deli, owned by transplanted back-Easterner Darren Pascale. I haven't seen any mention of the place; I only trip across it when stopping in to visit an old favorite a few shops down, Zipangu AmerAsian restaurant.
But if Pascale is speaking softly, he's carrying a big sandwich. Apparently, the deli has got its fans -- there are autographed pictures of Channel 10's Rick D'Amico, Ron Hoon and Kathleen Bade on the back wall. Count me as another supporter -- everything I sample at NY54 Deli is superior sustenance.
The simple storefront is small, just a few black and cherry wood tables, an order counter and classy framed prints of the New York Yankees, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Lou Gehrig. It's quiet, too, with pleasant service and a restive air even under a big-screen TV playing ESPN. And -- how un-New York -- it's sparkling clean, from the crisply plastic-wrapped meats, cheese and salads in the cooler to the elegant white butcher paper that wraps each sandwich into a snug bundle.
NY54's menu is short, featuring 16 sandwiches (17, if you count the "That's a' My Way" custom choice), 10 side salads and four desserts. The emphasis is on high-grade ingredients -- all meats and cheeses are Boar's Head Brand (meal packaging includes BHB logo stickers, in case we forget), and the bread arrives from a local purveyor who remains a secret, but clearly knows his craft. (Think the Boar's Head boast is bull? You'd be wrong. There is a difference, with no scraps or extenders, no artificial flavors or colors in the premium meats.)
One thing we do expect from a New York-style eatery is large portions, and NY54 delivers. The Sinatra sandwich brings fistfuls of succulent, whisper-thin shaved pastrami topped with zingy roasted red peppers, lacy provolone, fresh chopped lettuce and a dab of spicy mustard. A Long Islander, meanwhile, piles on intriguingly sweet pesto-Parmesan ham and mozzarella, while the Park Avenue is an enormous nosh of peppermill turkey, lean roast beef, Swiss and sprouts.
Fans of Italian subs will find much to cheer in the Mulberry Street, layering capocolla, Genoa salami, pepperoni, mozzarella and Italian roasted red peppers on that wonderfully squishy white, sesame-seed-crusted hoagie roll.
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NY54's signature sub is the 54, natch, but get there early in the day -- the primo Parma prosciutto goes fast. This gourmet meat is imported from Italy, and retails for an impressive $19.54 a pound. Here it's topped with picante provolone (aged 90 days), smothered with Italian roasted red peppers, lettuce, tomato, onion and deli mustard. Great grub.
I'm also partial to The Boss, bringing chicken cutlets pounded thin, lightly breaded and fried in extra virgin olive oil, then dressed with lettuce, tomato, onion, mayo. It's more interesting than The Rockefeller, your basic chunk chicken salad with a whisper of mayo and a few chops of celery. I also miss the point of a 5 Boroughs sandwich. It's special, I'm told, because it contains five homemade Italian meatballs (as compared to most other places' four?). But quantity doesn't account for size -- these are small critters, which, while of excellent firm-soft consistency, need a lot more sauce to be more remarkable.
New York cheesecake is stunning, though, properly leaden thick and creamy, delicately swirled with fresh fruit purée.
So what sells a restaurant? Expensive advertising campaigns? Celebrity chef status and fancy decor? Or could it be just the really good food that makes dining out worth paying for, no matter the setting? You'd expect as much, wouldn't you?