It has taken owner Daniel Malventano eight years to bring his restaurant into the honest-to-goodness big leagues, but today he's making gnocchi with the best of them. Acqua e Sale has evolved from a casual bistro (with black-and-white checkerboard floors, no less), and now sports sleek cherry wood and stylish, ornately framed black-and-gold prints.

But the real revelation here is the food -- including prosciutto d'anatra (whisper-thin duck breast edged with truffle oil), black truffle-spread crostini, and buffalo mozzarella. The traditional Italian fare holds up, too, with such choices as capellini con pomodorino freschi (angel hair pasta in a tomato, basil, garlic and olive-oil sauce), or osso buco mounded over fettuccine in a deep brown vegetable sauce. Even the simplest della campagna salad is magic, a minimalist marvel of field greens and organic tomatoes tossed in olive oil and squeezed with fresh lemon.

A pretty place, plus beautiful food? To that, we say, chow bella!

We love Italian food in New York -- its unpretentious recipes, its massive portions, its bargain prices. But we'd rather pass on the other part of the experience: gruff service and tables jammed too close together. No, we're happy as bugs in a desert rug to stay in the Valley, especially when we can find the same East Coast food experience at New York's Best without any of the hassle. The setting is friendly, with its choice of polite table service or quick-order counter help. This is like-mama-used-to-make stuff, including spaghetti and meatballs, baked ziti, chicken parmigiana and homemade sausage, as well as excellent calzones, pizzas, cold subs, hot subs and cheese steaks. At dinner, we can get a little more dressy -- orecchietti alla vodka, shrimp scampi linguini, gnocchi pomodoro. Let the Gotham city folks grump their way to good eats. Here in the Valley of the Sun, we can get the same stuff with a smile.

Fujiya Market
This bright and shiny little convenience store feels like it was transplanted straight out of Tokyo. The greasy hot dogs, sickly-sweet snack cakes and gargantuan Big Gulps are markedly absent. In their place, you can grab a salmon o-bento (a pretty arrangement of grilled salmon, rice and vegetable side dishes), some pastel-colored daifuku rice cakes filled with sweet red bean paste, or a six-pack of miniature Sapporo beers. And unlike its American counterparts, Fujiya carries a huge range of ingredients for making a tasty home-cooked meal, Japanese-style, including frozen octopus, dried seaweed, udon noodles and a different sauce for every possible dish. It even has hard-to-find items like enoki mushrooms and fresh quail eggs. After we pick out shampoo from the toiletries, snag some cute lacquered chopsticks and rent a videotape of a Japanese television drama, the only stop left on our little consumerist tour of Japan is the corner shelf of good sake. Kampai!

The Chuckbox
Timur Guseynov
What makes a burger better? Just good, old-fashioned, tender lovin' care. At Chuck Box, your burger doesn't meet the grill of its dreams until you've lined up in front of the steaming charcoal broiler and asked for it by name.

Try the Big Juan, a one-third-pound beauty named after Chuck Box's "beef engineer." On hungrier days, gravitate to the Great Big Juan, at a full one-half pound. You can add cheese (Swiss, American or Jalapeo Jack) and toppings of guacamole or bacon. Start salivating as the meat sizzles merrily away, next to fresh buns lightly toasting over the mesquite wood flames.

When it's done, your burger is placed gently on a tray, to be taken to Chuck Box's fully stocked condiment bar to be gussied up just a little more.

Lee Lee Oriental Supermarket
Toss in a few rickshaws streaking through the aisles, and visiting Lee Lee would be as authentic an experience as any of Asia's bustling open-air markets. Weekends are a zoo here, as happy cookers claw over piles of fresh produce, exotic meats, seafood, herbs and spices. What an incredible selection: bitter melon, long beans and Asian pear, plus an endless array of bok choy, eggplants, tofus and noodles.

Some things are acquired tastes, like the three-color dessert fashioned from cassava, sweet potato, mung bean, seaweed, peanuts, coconut and sugar. And it takes a confident cook to bring some of the meats and fish into the kitchen: salmon belly and head, gaspergou, barracuda, goat, duck feet and pork uterus.

But we never hesitate over such hard-to-find items as live crab, mussels, clams, tilapia, catfish and carp, or on-ice critters including squid, cuttlefish, massive shrimp, rabbit loin, filet and deer flank. Whatever we need, it's here -- fresh banana leaves, rice steamers, incense, oyster sauce, Thai iced tea, avocado ice cream and pickled lemon.

We love ya, Lee Lee.

Cholla Prime Steakhouse and Lounge
Courtesy of Cholla Prime Steakhouse
The most we've ever won gambling is a free drink or two. But our luck definitely turned when we discovered this hidden treasure tucked in the far back of a local gaming hall. Cholla is an upscale restaurant with all the elements of a sure bet: complimentary valet parking, a comfortable setting, polished, unobtrusive service and noteworthy cuisine. After dinner, there's another bonus: live entertainment in the cushy lounge adjacent to Cholla.

Appetizers are awesome, such as crispy fresh-grilled asparagus with prosciutto and shredded phyllo napped in a zippy citrus vinaigrette; sweet lobster and shrimp puff pastry on a lush fire-roasted red-pepper cream; or fat chile rellenos with forest mushroom duxelles and smoky Gouda corn sauce.

Entrees challenge our established "name" restaurants, with specialties like pan-roasted pheasant married with cabernet cassis (black currant), roasted shallots, cranberry-apple conserve and vegetable couscous. The veal chop is out of this world.

Kicking back with coffee and sinful desserts, it's almost impossible to believe we're just a few feet from frenzied gamblers in this clubby dining room (just 10 tables or so), with a soaring, leaded-glass wall that separates us from the slots.

Oh, and the final score? The casino doesn't charge any tax. On a meal that averages $85 for two -- an easy tab at Cholla -- we figure we've won an extra glass of Teifen Pinot Grigio. Now that's real luck.

A lot of the dishes at Cafe Istanbul are really healthful, fat-free and low-calorie. But don't hold that against them. Lay into the lamb appetizer, layered with creamy hummus and pine nuts, or the tender, tangy, stuffed grape leaves. And on a warm day, nothing soothes as much as labni, a velvety yogurt cheese dip garnished with cucumber, tomatoes, olives and pure olive oil to be scooped with pita.

Cafe Istanbul offers endless variety in entrees, and excellent value, too. Meals are served with soup or salad, rice or vegetables and pita bread. The shrimp scampi is stellar, sautéed in special Lebanese seasonings, as is the vegetarian dinner of zucchini, eggplant, spinach, carrots, banana squash and sweet potatoes in a luscious white sauce. Or just taste it all in a huge platter: The Al Amir combo brings a bounty of hummus, tabbouleh, stuffed grape leaves, feta cheese, baba ghanouj, mjadara, loubyeh, falafel, lamb, chicken and kafta kebab.

Segal's One Stop & Oasis Grill
Big Mac? Ha, that wouldn't even begin to put a dent in our appetites. No, when we want the beef, we want the beef.

Segal's stops us in our tracks, with sandwiches that stretch even the biggest stomachs. The quarter-pound and half-pound burgers are simply warm-ups. The battle burger, a half-pound of meat topped with hot pastrami, starts the competition. But the full one-pound burger has us waving our white flag. It's all juicy, cooked to order, topped with whatever we choose and served with French fries and coleslaw.

We've found the beef, and it's at Segal's.

C-Fu Gourmet
We love meals on wheels. As long as the meals are prepared by C-Fu, and the wheels belong to the dim sum carts careening around the warehouse-size dining room seven days a week. Just sit tight and wait for a cart to bring you more than 60 choices to tempt your taste buds. Chow fun noodles, Chinese broccoli, pork siu mai and baked barbecue pork buns are must-eats. Delectable dumplings stuffed with meat or seafood, fried shrimp balls, sticky rice in lotus leaf, stuffed eggplant and turnip cakes are winners, too. Weekends are particularly delightful, offering sum-thing special with contemporary plates starring seafood.

El Conquistador
Beguiling beans. That's the only way to describe the luscious legumes at El Conquistador. It's easy to miss this place, which is hidden from the street, but to find it is to be rewarded. Here, the basic bean is elevated to a fine dish, multi-textured with the perfect balance of a creamy base and tiny bits of chunk. There's no lard in the recipe, and we don't need it, content with the most assertively beany flavor we've found in the Valley. A light gilding of Cheddar, some crispy chips and hot sauce on the side, and we're as happy as can bean.

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