It's so hard to get good help. Sometimes the serfs at our castle revolt against us, and refuse to cater the elaborate dinner parties we like to throw. How gauche.

No matter, we've got a back-up with the ultra-luxe private dining room we can reserve at the Phoenician resort. Happily, it looks just like a castle, replete with Renaissance-era decor, barrel-vaulted ceilings, brick archways, European antiques and a full wall of wines. It's just spacious enough -- we can park up to 16 of our friends' premier posteriors on tapestry-upholstered chairs.

Adjacent to the resort's fabulous Terrace Dining Room, it also serves as the Terrace's working wine cellar. And when it's time to eat, we can have anything we want from the resort's flagship restaurant, Mary Elaine's. The magnificent modern French cuisine and highly polished service are just what we need to take our minds off our employment troubles at home.

It makes for such a peasant -- uh, pleasant -- evening out.

One of our favorite Lost in Space episodes of all time is when Dr. Smith is turned into a stalk of celery by an unfriendly planet dweller. When his space shipmates come to his rescue, he demurs, waxing on how lovely it is to be a vegetable -- "so cool, so green."

After tasting the produce of Quiessence chef-farmer Hallie Harron, we're right there in the dirt with him.

These are veggies of uncompromising virtue, grown under Harron's own hand in pretty little beds scattered across a 12-acre farm. The focus of her family-style meals, they're selected based on what the garden offers each day.

The only thing better than being a stalk of celery would be to exist as Harron's fennel, braised al dente and glossed with a thin red pepper marmalade. Or as her albino beets, roasted shallots, gloriously sweet and sour roasted onions, rich flavored grape tomatoes, or a curl of earthy daikon radish.

Finish our vegetables? Just try to stop us.

Don & Charlie's
Courtesy of Don & Charlie's
Let others worry about cholesterol and such: We want rich, satisfying foods. We want to line our gullets with the good stuff. The higher the fat, the better.

That makes Don & Charlie's pté a winner in our world. The fact that it's served free as a prelude to a gut-busting steak dinner including salad, potatoes and all the bread we can handle doesn't hurt, either.

The appetizer is pure beef liver, smooth but studded here and there with little liver chunks for interesting texture. It's served in the classic way, crumbled with hard-boiled egg, cozied up with lots of chopped white onion, and plopped in a big scoop on romaine. Sides of roasted red pepper and hot pepper tomatoes cut the richness when we need it. The pté's almost a meal in itself, spread on crisp lahvosh, rye bread and toast crisps.

At Don & Charlie's, we liver for the moment.

We almost broke down in tears when, at a recent food show, we saw vendors hawking the "newest trend in spaghetti for upscale restaurants seeking convenience" -- premade, precooked gourmet pasta that's vacuum-packed and ready to serve after two minutes in the microwave.

It's reassuring to know that any salesman trying to push these pseudo-pasta products on the folks at Il Pescatore would likely find a horse's head in his bed. That's because this charming, almost Victorian-looking restaurant is dedicated to excellence in the kitchen. All pastas are made fresh, from traditional family recipes.

Knowing that variety is the spice of life, Il Pescatore offers plenty of choices, too. Our favorite (fresh, of course) sauces, vegetables, meats and seafood can be paired with our heart's desire of cappellini, farfalle, fettuccini, gnocchi, linguini, penne, ravioli, rigatoni or tortellini.

We don't want pasta fasta. We want Il Pescatore, where they take the time to care.

A hero may be nothing but a sandwich, but at D'Atri's Cinema Paradiso, a sandwich is nothing short of a feast.

With her compact menu of eight hot sandwiches, bubbly owner/TV personality Jan D'Atri has elevated a simple meal to an art form. How else to describe massive monuments of D'Atri's own Italian sausage, roasted chicken breast, marinated steak and more, all of it served in focaccia made from an old family restaurant? Our personal favorite is a two-fisted monster groaning with salami, ham, pastrami, mozzarella and provolone.

And while some pseudo-sandwicheries may try to sneak by, heating with a pan or cooktop, D'Atri dedicates two panini-style griddles to her bundles, grilling breads, meats and fresh veggies before closing the sandwiches into the hot presses.

An added bonus? When the mood strikes, D'Atri's been known to serenade diners with an accordion. Tasty!

Readers' Choice: Subway

Best Place to Tell Mom and Dad You're Having a Love Child

Romano's Macaroni Grill

This category reminds us of an old schoolyard gag:

Q: Are you in favor of matrimony?

A: Only with cheese.

But seriously, ladies, when it comes time to tell the folks you're in the family way without the benefit of wedlock, we can't think of a better place to bite the bullet than this clamorous pasta palace.

With dishes clanking, an opera singer wailing and other customers shouting to be heard above the convivial din, your parents will soon be lulled into a state of idyllic catatonia. And when you do break the news, chances are the only reaction will be, "I'm sorry, dear. What did you say?"

And the food isn't bad, either. Dig in -- you're eating for two.

Miracle Mile Deli
Where's the brisket?

In the Valley, at Miracle Mile Deli.

A Valley tradition since 1949, Miracle Mile understands the importance of slow cooking for optimum flavor -- and of lightning-fast service when the crowds arrive.

By the time the doors open for lunch in this '60s-style deli, the brisket meat has been simmering for hours in its own juices. It's been sliced just thin enough for texture and piled in huge mounds in warming trays at the cafeteria-style counter, waiting for us as it bubbles to tender perfection in additional juices.

A server grabs the best pieces with his tongs, plops it on our plate and sends it down the line. And mere minutes after we arrive, we're smacking our lips over the beautiful brisket, tucked into a fresh, sweet onion roll. We sop up the juices with our French fries, alternating bites of mild beef with the tang of a sharp, crisp pickle.

Brisket, served this good, and this fast? It can only be a Miracle.

Well, okay, we haven't actually tasted the aardvark. It's right there on the menu, though, under "Special Order Pot Pies": "Aardvark (in season)." The man behind the counter of this eccentric little joint in an East Indian School strip mall, who claims the Mary R. of the name as "me sainted mother," will only smile coyly when asked when aardvark season is, so we suspect he's funnin' us.

The more conventional chicken pot pies at Mary Richardson's, however, are sublime -- succulent meat in fine, savory gravy, housed within a wonderfully hearty crust. The side dishes here are essential, as well -- whipped potatoes, a splendid crunchy coleslaw and a first-rate homemade applesauce. Get the #3 meal, which entitles you to a pot pie plus all three of the sides, for $6.15. There are also tasty apple, cherry, peach and blueberry pot pies for dessert, as well as tarts. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, there's a Burgundy mushroom beef pot pie, and with 24 hours' notice, you can get such more-plausible-than-aardvark special order pies as vegetarian, turkey, lamb and even seafood.

There are sandwiches, and then there are sandwiches. And then there's Pasta Brioni's meatball-and-bread concoction, which, while billed as a sandwich, is actually an entire meal that just happens to be tucked into a roll.

The sandwich is huge, of course. But it's a gentle giant, showcasing the old-fashioned Italian cooking that's largely disappeared in the era of cheese-stuffed pizza crusts.

The sauce is mellow, not too spicy, and not so soggy it makes the bread fall apart. The bread is crusty, lightly toasted and just thick enough to support its meatballs without getting in the way. And the meatballs? Orbs of beefy perfection, blending meat and restrained seasoning for a result so simply delicious it's almost extravagant.

Now let's have a big, two-handed salute to the ballsiest sandwich in town.

Palm Court
The Palm Court has been around for years, quietly catering to a dedicated clientele of conference and convention guests, plus savvy business lunchers who know a good thing when they see it. It's a little worn around the edges, as any grand old dame is wont to be.

But the lady's got more life than most folks may realize. Without abandoning the classic charm that's carried her all these years, the Palm Court surprises and delights with a very nicely done traditional Continental menu.

As the heavily draped windows, elaborate chandeliers and tuxedoed waiters suggest, the Palm Court relies on tradition. We get a kick out of the steak au poivre, flambéed tableside with cognac and tricolor peppercorns. Dover sole is filleted tableside to be topped with roasted almonds and parsley. And roast tenderloin is carved under our watchful eyes, then doused with béarnaise and Merlot sauces.

Plan to spend some time -- meals are prepared the old-fashioned way, to order. There's no need to rush -- our old friend, the Palm Court, isn't going anywhere soon.

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