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  • Resturants: Ethnic and Specialty
Maria Ranieri charmed us back in the '80s, when she evolved as the magic behind the award-winning pasta at Tomaso's restaurant. Then she bought another Tomaso enterprise, When in Naples. That was more than a decade ago, and since then, Ranieri has developed her restaurant brilliantly.

Recently renovated to add a gardenlike enclosed terrace, the sumptuous space is decorated with seaside murals, red brick walls and a copper-domed, exposed kitchen. Very Italian.

But it's the food that gets the heart pounding, celebrating Ranieri's now-famous handmade pastas, and a signature antipasto display in the eatery's foyer. Some of our all-time, flat-out lusted-after creations are the ravioli di Zucca (butternut squash filled, in a four cheese sauce) and Vitello alla Maria (veal sautéed in lemon butter with wild mushrooms, capers and artichokes).

Gourmet magazine has named Maria's to its list of America's Top Tables. Save us a seat.

Readers' Choice: Olive Garden

The owners of That's Italiano pride themselves on the fact that everything in the tidy, exposed kitchen is made on the premises. In fact, they claim to do everything on-site "except butcher the chickens."

But who's squawking? The tantalizing menu lists everything you'd expect to find in an Italian mom-and-pop operation -- 13 pastas and eight entrees, plus salads, focaccia, pizza and calzones. It's got all our favorites, from spaghetti topped with thin-sliced homemade sausage and mild tomato sauce goosed with fresh, whole-leaf herbs; to chicken parmesan with breast pounded so perfectly thin we could slide it under a door. Pillowy-crusted pizza's another pleaser, topped with handmade mozzarella so silky it looks like butter above our favorite "special" toppings of sausage, ham, salami and prosciutto.

The eatery's packed with the friendly charm you expect in a neighborhood trattoria, with crisp white and blue tablecloths, a seaside mural and clouds painted on the ceiling. Italian acoustical music fills the air, and there's even live talent on weekends.

The owners aim to please and do their best to honor our special requests. Just hold the flying feathers, please.

Have any doubts about the quality of the cuts at Harris'? You can meet your meat, proudly displayed in the aging coolers off the restaurant's entry. All the Certified Angus Beef is dry-aged on the premises for 21 days.

The soothing, Southwestern motif here might not instantly scream "steak house," but wait until your meal arrives. There's nothing light and fluffy about these mesquite grilled slabs. Our favorite is the Harris' steak, a New York sirloin served bone-in for optimum, juicy flavor.

And while other steak houses may put the squeeze on customers for side dishes, Harris' knows a real steak house serves the potatoes, too. Entrees include fresh vegetables as well, thank you very much.

For just a buck or two more, you can customize your cut of beef, enjoying it blackened, peppercorn crusted, Roquefort glazed, or smothered with caramelized onions and mushrooms.

Cowabunga!

Readers' Choice: Outback Steakhouse

This funky cowpoke cantina has been slinging steaks since the 1950s, dished up chuck-wagon style with all the fixin's -- tossed salad, baked potato, beans and squishy rolls.

In true saddle-tramp style, there's nothing fancy to speak of here, just an honest, mesquite-grilled slab of juicy, marbled-for-flavor beef. The 14-ounce New York steak hits the spot just fine, although ravenous urban cowboys might opt for Reata Pass' signature two-pound T-bone.

For Wild West buffs, Reata Pass' history is almost as delicious as its grub. Originally a stagecoach stop on the way to Fort McDowell and Prescott, it maintains portions of the old 1880s stage road. The landmark's since been featured in a number of movies (including Bob Hope's Cancel My Reservation) and old-timers still talk about the special chair former owners had to construct for "Tom Ton," a 500-pound regular.

No longer located out in the boondocks, the onetime desert hideaway helped introduce several generations of tourists to Arizona hospitality. It's a tradition that Reata Pass continues today -- but out-of-towners will have to take your word for it that the place was once surrounded by virgin desert, not acres of look-alike custom homes.

The Greeks had a word for it. And after dining at Greekfest, so do Arizonans: Delicious!

What makes Greekfest so great? For one thing, owners Susan and Tony Makridis don't hold back on flavors, tempting us with dishes heavily perfumed by aromatic olive oil, lemon, garlic, dill, mint, oregano and other herbs.

The variety of dishes is a mouth-watering romp through the Greek countryside. Whether you're in the mood for oktapodi skaras (grilled octopus in cabernet sauce), shrimp saganaki (with feta, pine nuts and kalamata olives) or exohiko (lamb with Kasseri cheese in phyllo), rest assured the Makridises will work their magic for you.

Waiters wish you "Eis hygeian" -- to your health -- when pouring your wine. And when our saganaki arrives, the mild kefalograviera cheese is soaked with brandy, then, as it's flamed at our table, all the nearby waiters shout a hearty "Opa!"

How's that for gilding the baklava?

Readers' Choice: Greekfest

Indian cuisine is renowned for its creative use of spices, and Taste of India doesn't hold back. The seductive scents hit us as soon as we walk in the door -- onion, cumin, garlic, turmeric, coriander, chili powder, mustard, fenugreek and ginger root.

Whether we're there for the bargain-priced lunch buffet, or for the equally affordable dinners, the smell has us salivating before we sit down.

Try the lamb kashmiry, resting in an ethereal cream sauce blossoming with apples, pears and almonds. Chicken makhni is another blissful dish, bringing tandoori-baked chicken simmered in velvety tomato sauce. It's all the better that Taste of India believes in huge portions.

This is also where we go for a broad selection of great seafood dishes, such as shrimp sagg, a decadent ocean treat of jumbo shrimp with spinach, broccoli, herbs and yes, spices.

Readers' Choice: Delhi Palace

The road to health -- like that to hell -- is paved with good intentions. Not to mention scads of diet-busting restaurants and fast-food joints serving up nutritional no-no's guaranteed to steer you off course.

But thanks to the good -- and good-for-you -- eats at the Green Leaf Cafe, you may finally make it to the finish line in fine fettle.

An international food bazaar of body-beneficial provender, the cafe serves up healthful dishes accented by the cuisines of Persia, the Mediterranean, Italy, America and Mexico, as well as Cajun and the Orient. Vegetables are everywhere, tofu shows up here and there, and brown rice with lentils (a fully balanced meal in itself) comes with almost every dish. The magic, though, is in the fresh herbs and spices -- oregano, basil, mint, dill, fennel, cumin, garlic, capers, parsley, ginger, fenugreek, cilantro and more.

All is not green, however. Despite a menu with a heavy vegan slant, the kitchen also offers entrees containing chicken, turkey, fish and eggs -- but no red meat. There, don't you feel better already?

Readers' Choice: Blue Burrito Grille

Yearning Japanese?

Then head east to Hiro Sushi, home of the Valley's most inscrutable eats. Fourteen lunch combinations present a dizzying array of teriyaki, tempura, gyoza, katsu, sushi and sashimi. Dinner combos, meanwhile, are a veritable feast of build-your-owns, conveniently priced per how many items you order. Your customized meals are prettily laid out in red lacquer trays and decorated with rice, miso and salad.

Specialties include salmon teriyaki, sanma (pike), saba shioyaki (mackerel), fried oyster and ginger pork. Sushi gets creative, too: Arizona roll (asparagus, scallop, avocado, cucumber); crazy roll (spicy tuna, avocado, smelt roe, fried shrimp, wrapped in pink soybean paper); and ribbon roll (spicy tuna, salmon and avocado).

Hiro's selections are beautifully fresh -- just ask the man himself. He'll happily bring out an entire fish for you to inspect, proudly claiming, "We just got this in today."

For topflight Japanese food, it's our Hiro.

Readers' Choice: Ra Sushi Bar Restaurant

What's a nice grill like you doing in a place like this?

At Arisoo, the grill is installed in a table, cooking up some sensational meats over gas flames. Treats like gal bi (short ribs marinated in soy), bul gogi (thinly sliced marinated beef tenderloin), dak bul gogi (chicken) and deaji bul gogi (pork).

Guests spread lettuce leaves with bean paste, rice, and their choice of pickled condiments like cabbage, radish, broccoli, bean sprouts, soy potatoes, cucumber, zucchini, garlic, kimchee and jalapeño pepper. The huge assortment of veggies is spicy hot, just the way these diners like them. Diners add the done-to-a-turn meat, wrap up the lettuce like a burrito, and munch happily away.

Good grill.

Restaurant Oceana prides itself on serving just-caught seafood on a daily changing menu. For us, this means sparkling ahi, Maine day boat scallops, Atlantic salmon, Hog Island oysters, Dungeness crab, Alaskan halibut and more. And though such seafood is available at many other places around town, Oceana gets highest marks not only for its unparalleled freshness, but also for creative preparation.

Billed as American cuisine with Asian and French overtones, the menu boasts dynamite dishes like miso-marinated Chilean sea bass with bok choy, shiitake, and jasmine rice, plus our absolute favorite: mustard crusted trout with leek whipped potatoes, snap peas and grilled red onion pan sauce.

We're especially hooked on Oceana's tasting menus, bringing us four-, five- or six-course feasts, paired with wines if we like. The experience makes relaxing in this elegant place easy, lounging under portraits painted by such greats as local artist Frank Ybarra, fiddling with the colorful fish figurines decorating our table, and watching what's up in the exposed kitchen.

There's always another fish in the sea, so the saying goes. We're happy enough with what we've found at Oceana.

Readers' Choice: Red Lobster

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