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

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.

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.

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