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YOUTH MUST BE SERVED

Bssghetti, 1656 South Alma School, Mesa, 820-8080. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 4:30 to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 4 to 9 p.m.

Uh-oh. It's Christmas-vacation time. Time for lots of family togetherness. Lots and lots of family togetherness. And we spend a good portion of that time together eating out. What do I usually get, dining out Ozzie-and-Harriet style? Indigestion. Dining with little ones can be a real challenge. While chomping on McFood is convenient, it violates my deepest gastronomic values. On the other hand, I'm not interested in initiating my kids into the restaurant world of refolded napkins and $15 entrees, either. Basically, I'm looking for a place that can satisfy three demands. First, it has to cater to families. So if the kids noisily misbehave--Get your elbow off my side of the table, you big, stupid, ugly jerk," "Go back to the landfill Mom and Dad picked you out of, creep"--other patrons, preoccupied with their own broods, won't reach for a weapon. Second, while child-development experts say you can't put a price on family bonding, I can: ten dollars a person, max. Lastly, the fare itself. I have to be able to swallow it. So, fully armed with kids and principles, I headed to Bssghetti. It's the latest creation of Big Four Restaurants, the longtime Valley company behind such venerable institutions as Oscar Taylor, Steamers and Lunt Avenue Marble Club. The place is cagily conceived, from the colorful neon signs outside to the tongue-in-cheek industrial look within. As they enter, customers are confronted by a gigantic colander suspended from the ceiling, "draining" massive strings of fake spaghetti. Huge, metal fans, the kind that might have tried to cool off a turn-of-the-century steel mill, loom overhead. Instead of jars filled with Italian staples like olive oil and peppers, the glass containers here hold nuts, bolts and screws. And while jugs of Bssghetti-brand wine and a display case with Bssghetti tee shirts, cups and caps don't tempt me to loosen the grip on my wallet, they're nifty to gaze at, too. The ears, though, don't fare as well as the eyes. For some strange reason, the operators pipe in annoying jazz Muzak, about as appropriate here as Maori war chants.

How about the senses of taste and smell? As the "Bssghetti" name suggests, diners are in for nonthreatening, kid-friendly Italian food--pizza, pasta, chicken. Big Four has thought through other elements of the menu, as well. All meals come with caesar salad, garlic bread and Italian cookies. Except for beverages, there's no need to order anything else. With chicken dishes topping out at $8.95, and pizza and pasta in the $7 to $8 range, you won't be lured into deficit spending. The pseudocaesar salad that starts off the meal might offend purists, but pleased us. It's served family-style, in a big, metal bowl, and doesn't contain a shred of dreaded iceberg lettuce. Instead, romaine leaves are tossed with tomato wedges and croutons in a light, creamy dressing. I wish more restaurants would put this much effort into their salads. It comes with a basket of first-rate seasoned garlic bread, hot, fresh, chewy and crunchy. Like the salad, it's about as good as I could have hoped for, and attentive servers bring swift refills.

For the most part, the main dishes keep up the standards set by the bread and salad. Prominently centered right off the entrance is a rotisserie lined with rotating poultry. From here comes the foundation for Bssghetti's chicken cacciatore, half a cut-up bird simmered in a gentle, aromatic tomato sauce freshened with red and green pepper. It doesn't sound like a kid dish, but mine had no trouble packing it away. Smoked-salmon linguini has more adult appeal. Tiny bits of smoked salmon impart a peppy fragrance to a heavy tomato-cream sauce. It's all poured over a deep bowl of noodles, and my kids wouldn't touch it. So much the better for us grown-ups. But the girls couldn't keep their forks out of the baked spaghetti pie, the clear children's choice. And, I'm not ashamed to admit, a parent's favorite, too. It's a hefty wedge of pressed pasta, topped with mozzarella and meat sauce and baked to a crisp edge. This is Italian-American comfort food, with a vengeance. Spaghetti and meatballs seemed blandly routine to me. I couldn't possibly imagine a Mama Bssghetti working back in the kitchen, rolling out these six hard, institutionally textured meatballs. The dull sauce, too, didn't go much beyond school-cafeteria quality. The fact that the kids were fond of this platter seemed to point less to its intrinsic quality and more to the nature of my own substandard home-cooking achievements.

Eggplant Parmesan is Bssghetti's one outright failure. I got fooled into confusing it with eggplant parmigiano, a fatal error. It's just insufficiently grilled, unlayered, unbreaded slices of eggplant glopped with cheese.

Pizzas don't offer much in the way of crust, whose principal function here is not taste, but foundation support for the cheese and sauce. Surprisingly, though, the nine-inch pizzas are lustily seasoned, as well as generously topped. The spongy Italian biscotti, which come with the meal, don't make much of a dessert impact. But, like so many of life's inconveniences, that problem can be remedied by throwing money at it. Toss your cash at the … la carte sweets. Specifically, both the cake-clotted, ultrarich chocolate pudding and the sweet, chocolate-studded, frozen-vanilla mousse in hot fudge are guaranteed to bring a smile to both 10-year-olds and 40-year-olds who think they can still eat like 10-year-olds. Bssghetti is a fun spot to work on family values, not least because it provides good family value. Here's looking at you, kids.

Islands, 730 South Mill, Tempe, 929-9769. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Islands, a popular Southern California family dining chain, has brought its tropical-themed concept to the Valley. It's a cheery place, with an idealized vision of South Seas life. In fact, it looks a lot like the singing-bird attraction at Disneyland. You'll find thatched roofs, tilted beach umbrellas, gaily colored, painted toucans, lots of greenery and photo blowups of curling waves, beach volleyball and bathing beauties. The young, eager-to-please servers sport Hawaiian-print shirts and khaki shorts. It's island life without bugs, humidity or smoking section. Despite the Gilligan's Island setting, the kid-pleasing menu offers strictly California beach fare--burgers, sandwiches, salads and tacos. If you're stranded with the kids at mealtime, though, you can do a lot worse than wash ashore here. Serviceable nachos arrive quickly, with a heaping pile of fresh chips, zippy jalape¤os, sour cream and a tasty salsa that belies Islands' corporate roots. Just as important to the kids were the endless refills of pink lemonade. Unlike the sweet, watery concoction we sampled at Bssghetti, this lemonade wasn't afraid to be tart. One bite into her huge chicken sandwich, my daughter pronounced it "heavenly." Her version, the "Pelican," features a slab of chicken breast, coated with barbecue sauce, Swiss cheese and mayo, on a mushy bun. While "heavenly" is not the first adjective that would spring to mind to describe it, I could understand a hungry kid's enthusiasm. Burgers are a particular source of pride at Islands, and I can see why. They're beefy, half-pound monsters on a mushy bun, enough for a kid's dinner and tomorrow's lunch.

But Islands better work on the preparation. The menu says they come medium rare, unless diners request otherwise. We did, but ours still came medium rare, juicy pink in the center.

Islands may be violating not only customer taste preferences, but also municipal codes. In response to last year's E. coli scare, Valley burgers must now be thoroughly cooked. I wouldn't expect a kid to order the China Coast salad, and mine certainly wanted no part of it. But it's the best thing on the menu: thick slices of white-meat chicken that look like they actually came from a chicken breast, crisp, fried Chinese noodles, mandarin orange segments, various greens and a delightful sesame dressing. The worst item here? It's no contest--the fish taco. It's filled with tasteless, Mrs. Paul-looking fried creatures that should have been thrown back before the boat reached shore. The truly hard-to-please kid can make do with an absolutely ordinary tuna-salad sandwich, served with disturbing-looking shredded yellow cheese on--you guessed it--a mushy bun. A tour of Islands isn't complete without a stop at the basket of fries. These are really first-rate, some of the best I've crunched on in the Valley. They're fashioned daily from fresh potatoes, delicately seasoned and served right from the fryer. Each basket contains two pounds of spuds, more than enough to encourage kids to see the virtues of sharing. The fries alone are enough to bring me back here. Islands offers only one dessert, but it's all the restaurant needs. The Kona pie is a huge wedge of mocha-almond-fudge ice cream, with Oreo-cookie crust on the bottom, fudge, nuts and whipped cream up top. Subtle? No. Irresistible? Yes. Order one, with four forks. And cheer up. School reopens January 3.

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miles
Islands

730 S. Mill Ave.
Tempe, AZ 85281-4250

480-929-9769

www.islandsrestaurant.com


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