Youth Wants to Gnaw

Tucchetti, Town & Country Shopping Center, 20th Street and Camelback, Phoenix, 957-0222. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11:15 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday, 11:15 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 4:30 to 9 p.m.

Someone once asked W.C. Fields if he liked children.
"Only if they're properly cooked," replied the crusty comic. The old misanthrope may have been on to something.

I certainly see his point, especially when it comes to dining out with your own prides and joys. On any scale of anxiety, bringing kids to a restaurant ranks just beneath spending the night at Tent City.

Talk about whining and dining. When they were young, my daughters spent most of their restaurant time either overturning milk glasses or reenacting the first Ali-Frazier bout. Now that they're teenagers, they've turned sullen, unhappy that they have to be seen in public with a couple of senile, aging dorks (i.e., mom and dad). Instead of fisticuffs, we have to deal with conversation stoppers like, "When I get my driver's license, I'm going to take the car and drive to Las Vegas. And you can't stop me."

It's the holiday season; school is out. It's time for family mealtime togetherness. But the kids don't want to eat at home, and I can feel their pain--we've been subsisting on leftover turkey salad and Chex mix since the day after Thanksgiving.

On the other hand, I'm not about to take them out to pricey restaurants where the waiters call me "Monsieur," refold our napkins and ask how we'd like the Chateaubriand prepared.

So I looked for a spot that meets my family-restaurant criteria: tasty food, kid-friendly atmosphere and prices that won't set the alarm bells ringing at Visa headquarters.

First stop: a step back in time to Tucchetti, an all-American Italian restaurant where June and Ward Cleaver could have taken Wally and the Beaver in perfect confidence. Remember the days when spaghetti and meatballs were on the menu, and risotto, bistecca alla fiorentina and osso buco weren't? The savvy proprietors behind the pizza/pasta/veal Parmesan comfort food here do. And judging from the crowds, so does most of Phoenix.

Tucchetti's rustic-Italian look is as carefully calculated as the menu. There's a false patio roof overhead, laced with colored lights and plastic vines, and laden with bunches of plastic grapes. Chianti bottles in wicker baskets hang suspended from the ceiling, and old family-album photographs line the fake-brick walls. Naturally, tables are covered with red-checked oilcloth, and naturally, accordion renditions of familiar Italian tunes spill out of the music system. Don't worry about noisy kids here--you couldn't hear a 747 over the din. While adults soak up the setting and turn down their hearing aids, the little ones get crayons and coloring materials to keep them occupied.

If your kids are at the clean-out-the-refrigerator-and-pantry stage of their development, Tucchetti makes good eating-out sense. Portions are huge; entrees come with an all-you-can-eat soup and salad bar; and there are free soft-drink refills. And if you're at the stage of your development where you require inexpensive, undemanding, generally tasty Italian-American fare, Tucchetti will work for you as well.

The whole family should appreciate the thickly stocked minestrone soup, especially if members opt to make it "alla Genovese." No, that isn't Italian for "in the style of a crime boss." It means Genoa-style, tossing in a spoonful of fresh, garlicky pesto, one of Tucchetti's soup-bar options.

Unfortunately, the salad bar doesn't have nearly the same flair. It's a snoozy mix of iceberg lettuce and the usual supporting cast. However, there is one vat worth seeking out--giardiniera, a mix of zesty veggies perked up with olives and capers.

Among the appetizers, the baked artichoke hearts should please the grown-ups. Tucchetti doesn't stint on the artichokes, which come moistened with a tangy lemon-garlic sauce. The toasted-ravioli starter--crunchy, deep-fried critters stuffed with stretchy cheese--should please the kids. The stuffed mushrooms won't please anybody: four tasteless, rubbery fungi drowned in a pool of off-putting liquid cholesterol.

Tucchetti's pasta entrees won't whip you into a gastronomic frenzy. Still, they're almost all priced under 10 dollars. And if you order right, they can at least put you in a very good mood. Orecchiette is by far the best noodle dish here. It's pasta shaped like little ears, tossed with broccoli in a sizzling iron skillet, enlivened with sun-dried tomatoes and low levels of garlic.

Kids turned off by the prospect of broccoli will find happiness in the baked spaghetti. A big brick of crusted noodles, there's nothing complicated or elegant about it, but it's a sure-fire hit. Don't bother, though, paying an extra buck to add a flavorless meatball or sausage. If you close your eyes and take a bite, you can't tell which is which.  

Linguini with pesto and pine nuts delivers a surprising amount of ethnic flair. Angel hair with shrimp doesn't. While the dozen crustaceans make a favorable impression, the promised "basil and garlic oil" flavoring is too faint to make any impression at all. Stuffed shells are boosted by a commendable Alfredo sauce and lots of cheese, a smart way to appeal to kids. Lasagna, meanwhile, is strictly routine.

Carnivores don't get shortchanged. Veal Parmesan, at $14.95 the most expensive platter here, features lots of tender, nongristly veal and a heaping pile of spaghetti. Chicken Vesuvio is half a roasted chicken, fragrantly freshened with herbs, garlic and lemon. However, the side of mushy roasted potatoes needs work.

So does the pizza, with its thin, crackerlike crust and undistinguished cheese and sauce. No matter how much your kids whine, for their own good I'd steer them away from it.

Instead, promise them dessert. They may appreciate the Italian ices, tiramisu and fudgy chocolate cake. Discerning adults won't.

A family meal at Tucchetti won't leave you with a knot in your stomach or a hole in your wallet. At this time of year, how many other family activities can make the same claim?

Ed Debevic's Short Orders Deluxe, 2102 East Highland, Phoenix, 956-2760. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

There may be people who've eaten at Ed Debevic's more often than I have. But not too many have eaten there as long as I have.

I stopped in at the first Ed's, in Chicago, soon after it opened in the early 1980s. I took many family excursions to the Los Angeles branch after it arrived there a few years later. We've been repeat customers in Phoenix ever since our move here seven years ago.

Over the years, there have been several changes in ownership. (In fact, the restaurant was originally conceived by the same group that operates Tucchetti.) How does the Ed Debevic's of today compare with the Ed Debevic's of yesteryear? Two points:

1. The original 1950s malt shop/diner concept still works great--lots of blaring oldies, red-vinyl booths, role-playing servers, and Ed's pithy aphorisms ("The more you tip, the nicer we are") plastered all over the walls. You half expect to see Archie, Jughead and Veronica sitting at the counter.

2. The food has gone seriously downhill.
The second point may be irrelevant. I took a bunch of kids here and they had an absolutely great time. They yakked it up with the smart-aleck server, sang along when "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do" came over the music system, watched the staff perform the Brady Bunch theme song on top of the lunch counter and danced the macarena in the aisles. They even played along when I announced I was to be addressed as "Dr. Phunk" for the evening. ("More like Dr. Dweeb," snickered my kid to her friends.)

As you may have surmised, Ed Debevic's is not the first place you want to take a childless friend who is just recovering from a nervous breakdown. It's not the first place you want to take a visiting gourmet, either.

I still sorely miss the salad bar, which has been gone a couple of years now. It wasn't a favorite with the pintsize crowd, and probably not terribly profitable. But more often than not, its presence made me give in to the kids' request to eat here.

Instead, the menu offers a Chinese chicken salad that's about as Chinese as my Aunt Harriet. It's a pile of iceberg lettuce, a bit of cabbage, a few snow peas, several strips of bland poultry and some crunchy Chinese noodles, doused with an awful dressing that, if it did come from China, was probably deported.

Most of the other menu options make me long for the good old days, in more ways than one. The burgers are probably the best option, meaty and juicy. I had the Atomic Burger, purportedly zipped up with diced jalapenos. But this warhead was disarmed--I felt no heat whatsoever. Nevertheless, I appreciated the diced tomatoes, onions and jack cheese.

Consider filling up on nachos. They're surprisingly good, fresh chips loaded with chili, cheese and mounds of sour cream and guacamole.

The menu says the Deluxe Plates are "just like Ed's Mom used to make." If so, I'll bet Ed's dad yearned to eat out. Years ago I enjoyed the chicken pot pie, but these days it tastes like something out of a microwave box. The Chicken Finger basket is dreadful, deep-fried McFood that even the kids spurned. Chicken-fried steak is not the tenderest piece of animal protein I've sunk my teeth into, although the thick mashed spuds and creamed corn furnished side-dish aid. And the meat loaf's texture seemed off--it's too smooth. It also comes with unseasoned broccoli and carrots that only the threat of Mom's punishment could make you eat.  

For dessert, the wonderful double chocolate malt can't be topped. The model here is guaranteed to bring out whatever kid is left in you. Forget about the Oreo Cookie Pie and Peanut Butter Pie. The menu calls them "homemade," but they have a waxy, institutional taste and texture.

I know Santa is pretty busy this time of year. Let's hope he has enough time to climb down Ed Debevic's chimney and straighten out the kitchen.

Toasted ravioli
Baked spaghetti
Chocolate cake

Ed Debevic's
Short Orders Deluxe:
Atomic Burger
Chicken pot pie
Chinese chicken salad
Double chocolate malt

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