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.

Fidel Castro-style fatigues, bad hangovers from Bacardi rum, Elián Gonzalez -- these are a few of our favorite Cuban things. But none can hold a candle to good Cuban black bean soup, a Caribbean classic raised to a memorable art form by Havana Cafe. Originally hailing from Havana themselves, cafe owners B.J. and Gilbert Hernandez must be genetically predisposed to knowing how to whip up an unbeatable, down-island version of sopa de frijoles negros, laced with generous amounts of garlic. Theirs is a thick, all-vegetarian black bean purée in which whole beans bob together with bits of red and green pepper and diced onion. A garnish of fresh cilantro is a decidedly non-authentic, Southwestern touch crowning this meal-size marvel, but who's complaining -- especially since a big bowl of it is a real steal for less than three U.S. bucks.
The actual home of this Philly fave is the City of Brotherly Love. But here in the Valley, the local cheese steak fraternity pledges allegiance to Uncle Sam's.

The red-white-and-blue sandwich shop never lets us down, no matter the time of day, no matter how busy. And it gets very, very busy as soon as the doors open, until every seat is gone and it's standing room only at the takeout counter. Fear not: The cooks are speed demons, slapping great mounds of thin-sliced steak on a sizzling grill, and tossing the meat as its juices crackle and spit.

We love the huge portions (the half sandwich size is anybody else's whole). We love the choices (11 different steaks). We've picked our favorite -- loaded with fresh mushrooms, green pepper, onions, gooey white American cheese and hot peppers bursting the seams of a squishy Italian sub roll.

Uncle Sam's? We want you!

Arcadia Farms likes to promote itself as the place for "ladies who lunch." No argument there -- if the ladies in question happen to eat like lumberjacks.

But even an ax-swinger with XY chromosomes is going to have his work cut out for him with the Farms' hefty turkey sandwich. Delectable, thick slabs of real, Thanksgiving-style roasted turkey breast (raised in Dewey, AZ) are piled high on country-style bread just shy of sourdough. A light slick of mayo gilds the gobbler, topped with roma tomato, sliced cucumber, pea shoots and baby lettuce.

(Hint: Sandwiches come with a choice of potato salad or organic greens. Order the potato salad, a plate load of red, skin-on chunks dotted with dill, bits of fresh bacon, parsley and scallion. Why? It's not only delicious, it comes on a bed of greens already.)

The DelPrincipe family first introduced its Italian beef recipe back in 1968, at a little store in Chicago. Fortunately for us, some of the family decided to escape the snow and set up shop in the Valley. Today, the Phoenix and Tempe locations are run by different family members, with friendly, often vocal competition between themselves to be better than the other.

Of course, the sandwiches are equally fabulous at both stores. This is top-quality stuff, bringing mounds of tooth tender beef thinly sliced and swimming in its own natural juices. We order ours "wet," for extra gravy to render the French roll into soggy, richly brothed bliss, and don't apologize for making an absolute mess of ourselves. That's what napkins are for.

There are plenty of places around town that make fancy hamburgers. They stuff them with exotic cheeses, lay them on designer buns and present highfalutin condiments like crushed mustard seed, garlic-infused mayonnaise and wasabi ketchup.

That's all well and good, but we prefer a far simpler approach to America's favorite sandwich -- an uncomplicated serving of quality ground beef, plopped on a fresh bun, then gussied up with a slice of American cheese and perhaps a spritz of yellow mustard. In short, just like the burgers served at the Chuck Box.

The cooks at this long-standing Valley burger biz don't put much into ceremony; they're too busy churning out fresh sandwiches to order. They peer at us from behind the blistering hot mesquite charcoal broiler, waiting patiently as we make the agonizing decision between the Big Juan (one-third pound, and named after Chuck Box's "beef engineer") and the Great Big Juan (one-half pound). We can add cheese (Swiss, American or Jalapeño Jack) and, if we're really feeling feisty, we can toss on some guacamole or bacon. There's also a choice of white or wheat buns, which are lightly toasted on the grill as the meat sizzles merrily away.

The burgers arrive virtually greaseless, presented on disposable plates atop plastic trays, to be dressed as we desire at the Chuck Box's condiment bar (the fanciest thing offered here is ranch dressing).

To paraphrase the immortal words of one noted burger connoisseur, "We'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a Chuck Box burger today."

If The Sound of Music had been set in Phoenix instead of Austria, Rodgers and Hammerstein would surely have scuttled the "a drink with jam and bread" lyric in favor of "ti -- a drink that's filled with ice."

And for our do-re-mi, you won't find a better glass of the ubiquitous chilled brew than, ironically, at a place best known for its java. The unofficial state drink (the average Phoenician swills untold gallons annually), iced tea à la Coffee Plantation is a brew that is true. Supplied by the Tempe-based Revolution Tea Company, the leafy libation is available in a variety of distinctive flavors -- Red Hawaiian, decaf Vanilla Bean and Citrus Spice, to name a few.

Under most circumstances, "cheesy" is usually a pejorative term. But when applied to a description of the cheesecake at Christopher's, it's the highest praise possible.

The rival of any similar dessert in its New York deli homeland, this model is decadence on a plate -- huge, delectably creamy and, of course, obscenely caloric.

There are no superfluous toppings here, just a sprinkle of shaved almond, and plate companions of strawberry, blackberry and blueberry lightly drizzled with honey.

Chef-owner Giovanni Scorzo studied baking in Alassio near Genoa, Italy. He continues his craft in this magical little bakery tucked next to his award-winning restaurant Lecabaffi.

Everything here is to diet for, with sinfully rich tiramisu, zuppa inglese, cannoli, almond puff pastry, fruit tarts, and budino di riso (butter pastry topped with rice pudding; it makes our toes curl). We could make a meal out of Scorzo's dreamy bigne con Crema Pasticcera o Cioccolato (crème puffs oozing with custard or chocolate), topped off with a steaming cup of Torrefazione Italia coffee.

Sometimes, if you're feeling virtuous, go for the less-sweet but oh-so-satisfying focaccia with grapes or apples; or any of the crunchy biscotti, particularly the awesome anise.

There's no use sugar-coating it -- Galileo's got just the desserts we deserve.

Readers' Choice: Marie Callender's

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