The status of appetizers has changed in American restaurants. It used to be that most starters were mild-mannered offerings, designed to keep diners quiet while the kitchen had time to work on the main event. Appetizers used to be little more than tossed salad, soup, deep-fried veggies and, in a nice place, perhaps a shrimp cocktail.

Today, in good restaurants, appetizers are works of art. They're prepared as meticulously and creatively as entrees -- sometimes even more so.

At Ridge Cafe, however, appetizers aren't just as elaborate as entrees, they're almost as big -- at half the price of a full dinner.

The chefs here serve up a generous asparagus and shrimp combo, with beautiful veggies served cool and crisp under two truly jumbo shrimp in a tidy, red onion and dill vinaigrette. What could be better than a massive chile relleno, a pristine pasilla pepper in lacy batter stuffed with whole mushroom, chicken breast and jack cheese? And how about a mussel appetizer, bringing a generous baker's dozen of bivalves in a savory white wine, tomato, garlic and fennel broth?

A few slices of bread, a glass of wine, and there's simply no room left in our bellies. Change is good, we've been told. We have to agree.

It's all a matter of priorities. Do you want to live 90 years eating Dairy Queen, or 40 years eating Ritter's? When given the choice to Live (fat) Free or Die, we and our Dionysian fat friends invariably choose the latter. Ritter's gourmet custard (glorified ice cream) is sumptuous, voluptuous and fat on rich flavor. This strangely retro little malt shop in Gilbert offers daily specials that, cumulatively, are now referred to by area residents as "Murderer's Row."
All couscous is not created equal. Some are achingly dry, like herby dust. Some are sadly sodden, like seasoned moss. Some, like the kind served at Bravo Bistro, are spectacular.

Bravo's couscous is Moroccan, which means it's larger and moister than the tiny seffa variety served around town. These caper-size beauties pop in the mouths, exploding with wholesome, grainy goodness. Bravo serves this dish with sautéed grilled chicken and fresh vegetables in an aromatic herb broth.

It's the couscous we choose.

Why are pizzas in New York so insanely large? It's not like there's a lot of spare room in this crowded city. The typical Gotham City pie is so immense that even someone the size of the Statue of Liberty would have difficulty scarfing down more than a few slices.

But the real head-scratcher is why many of the pizzas found in the Valley are such dainty little numbers. This is the land of wide-open spaces, where tough-talking cowboys cuddle with rattlesnakes and keep company with scorpions. Yet here, thin crust rules, slices require just one hand, and many places top their pizzas with -- gasp! -- designer stuff like barbecue sauce, feta, goat cheese and shrimp.

When we're craving good, old-fashioned New York-style pie, we pick Pizzafarro's. There's nothing shy about these servings -- the 16-inch large is enough to feed a family of four. Pillowy-crusted slices are enormous. We can fold them for easier eating, but if we don't want delicious pizza oil dripping down our fronts, we're looking at using a knife and a fork.

Pizzafarro's doesn't believe in frou-frou, either. All our favorite toppings are there (even fresh anchovies), but the only nods to contemporary cuisine are artichokes and green chile.

Back up the SUV and fold down the seats. We're going to pick up a pie from Pizzafarro's.

Readers' Choice for Best Gourmet Pizza: Pizzeria Bianco

Readers' Choice for Best Classic Pizza: Pizza Hut

This primo pie is not for wimps. The large pie (18 inches) is about two and a half inches thick, and weighs almost 20 pounds. The big and tall men among us may be able to wrestle the huge slice into their mouths, but the rest of us are forced to use utensils to avoid muscle strain in our elbows.

At Western, there's no skimping on toppings -- bubbly-crisp dough groans under the weight of barbecue chicken breast with pine nuts, or spinach, feta, olive, sun-dried tomato and pesto. The best seller is the Western Round-Up, with mushroom, pepperoni, salami, ham, peppers and onions (the meat is layered high and thin like a hoagie, then buried under a truckload of mozzarella).

And we like Western Pizza for its hours. It's not only open until 3 a.m. Thursdays through Saturdays (1 a.m. other days), it delivers until then, too. That's pretty macho.

After eating too many fair-to-middling versions of this Greek standard to remember, we were inclined to agree with Tina Turner when she sang. "We don't need another gyro."

Or something like that.

Of course, that was before we discovered the Hellenic heroes served up at Super Gyros. A two-handed feast of Olympian proportions, the generous mound of pressed lamb and beef is so juicy, we actually forget there's a side container of wonderful yogurt dressing until we're halfway through.

But don't you make the same mistake: As the sauce succulently soaks into the hot pita bread, it lends a tangy kick to the feta-topped meat that's fit for the gods. Super Gyro? Don't myth it.

Last year, Houston's unceremoniously removed its signature smoked salmon appetizer from the menu for a trial period. The reaction from customers was not a pretty thing. Folks whined and ranted to the waiters. They e-mailed nasty-grams to the corporate powers that be. Some even threatened to boycott the restaurant. They mourned the loss of the silky, melt-in-your-mouth fish flesh Houston's elegantly pairs with toast points and a side of herbed mayo, a combo that, with a glass of good wine, makes a meal in itself.

Apparently, we weren't the only ones disappointed with Houston's wrong-headed marketing decision, so the salmon's back on the menu again in Phoenix. It's the best this side of Seattle.

Got a hankerin' for a real slice of sweet potato pie? Hightail it down to this cozy Cajun hole-in-the-wall where Chef Bubba Stephenson bakes a pie fit for Queen Ida herself.

Bubba lines a delicate homemade pie crust with a hearty, spicy filling made from fresh, not canned, sweet potatoes. Each generous slice (about a quarter of a pie) is served warm and slathered with plenty of whipped cream. After one bite, you'll feel as if you're back in the bayou. Sweet zydeco!

Mention "greens" in Scottsdale and most people will think you're talking about a golf course.

But that was before Marcella's opened for business, dishing out the verdant veggies that are a hallmark of any soul food menu. Kale, cabbage or collard, they're all prepared essentially the same way. Steamed with bacon or ham hocks until soft and tender, the leafy treats kick into high gear with the addition of garlic, and are then served in a steaming bowl of potent pot likker.

Forget chicken soup for the soul -- Marcella's greens will keep you in the pink.

Honey Bear's owners Mark Smith and Gary Clark started cooking their mouth-watering barbecue out of their apartment almost two decades ago, based on recipes from their grandmother. Later, they moved to their dimly lighted, no-frills digs on Van Buren. A few years back, success led them to open a new location on Central Avenue.

Today, their Tennessee-style barbecue continues to draw in diners, lured by the smells of smoking meat and simmering sauces.

Their slogan: "You don't need no teeth to eat our meat." That's true. Pulled pork, beef and chicken positively collapse before we can gnaw them down. Pork ribs and whole or half-chickens slip from the bone. Hot links -- well, these take a tooth or two to snap their firm casing and get to the spicy sausage within.

Our honey of a meal is a large combo sandwich of pork and chicken. It's not on the menu, but always happily accommodated. The massive mound of meat comes tucked in a soft bun and wrapped in tin foil. The foil's important -- it seals in the heat, keeping the bun warm. Spicy sauce is served on the side.

It's a barbecue we could bear to eat every single day.

Readers' Choice: Honey Bear's BBQ

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