Giuseppe's on 28th
Jamie Peachey
This no-frills joint stuck in a strip mall between stores that sell cheap water and cigarettes has a devoutly loyal following, and with good reason. It's the place to go for happily inexpensive southern Italian fare, lunch or dinner. The owner, a Jewish Italophile who is the principal cellist for the Phoenix Symphony, is apt to greet you at the door and recommend his special of the day before you order at the front counter. The venerable staff (some of them have worked there for years) will fix your meal any way you like it. These days, with everyone and his mother on some kind of diet, that can mean an awful lot: If you ask, the guys will whip you up an antipasto that the late Dr. Atkins would appreciate from low-carb, high-protein heaven. A meal at Giuseppe's isn't complete without the sampler plate of bruschetta. It starts with a toasted piece of Italian bread topped with tomato, garlic and herbs, and goes from there (cheeses, meats and grilled vegetables). Three pieces for five bucks is an eminently fair price.

Readers' Choice for Best Italian Restaurant: Olive Garden

Rancho Pinot
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
At some point, the meaning of "gourmet" has been lost. It's come to mean crazy, wild concoctions, with bizarre foods and even weirder combinations. But actually, gourmet means "a connoisseur of fine food and drink." So there's no better restaurant to celebrate fine food and drink than at Rancho Pinot. Co-owner Tom Kaufman is a wine genius, with a hugely clever and creative wine list (love the illustrations!). Co-owner Chrysa Kaufman is a food genius, and leader of the Phoenix chapter of Slow Food, an international group that cherishes farm-fresh foods, natural ingredients, and the joy of relaxing over a meticulously prepared meal.

The Kaufmans can get a bit wacko in their intense drive to prepare the most perfect food (don't ask for substitutions). But it's only from their obsession for the best in every bite of food, every sip of drink. The menu changes constantly, depending on what is the best available from organic farms and local artisans, and by what Chrysa deems acceptable to her creative skills.

Try this place once, and learn the difference between just food, and true art.

A friend of ours suggested we try losing some extra inches on one of those low-carb diets, but we just laughed. He's lucky we didn't belt him for suggesting we give up our romance with Willo Bakery, our favorite place to load up on the best-tasting carbs in town. Our pal doesn't realize that life without Willo's currant walnut rolls is a life not worth living. Once there, it's tough to decide between Willo's mind-bendingly perfect sourdough loaf and its tasty signature Willo Round. Then there's our favorite crusty Sunflower Bread, hard on the outside, dense and springy on the inside. We usually wind up taking all of these home, with a slice of focaccia thrown in for good measure. (And since we're not reducing, a quick cruise of the sweets counter is always part of our visit.) Everything at Willo is baked fresh daily, natch, and its bakers add no sugar, meat, dairy or preservatives to any of their magnificent breads. This attention to pure ingredients is our idea of sensible eating, and so we suggest a daily diet of Willo baked goods, pronto.

Readers' Choice: Karsh's Bakery

At Litchfield Park Organics, owners Shaun and Cathy Kalos stock a beautiful variety of organic produce from local vendors, and from California (the lettuce is so fresh and beautiful we want to roll around in it naked). Primary shoppers for fruits and veggies are co-op members, but for the rest of us, they also stock organic pasta, cereal, canned goods, milk, cheese and butter. Beef comes from natural (what a word!) cows in Goodyear, smoothies are all preservative- and chemical-free, and Cathy even makes 100 percent healthful takeout sandwiches in her spare time. Even when we're not hungry, this place makes us feel better just knowing it's out there.
We had to walk out the front door of this place and take a peek down Central Avenue to be sure we really were still in Phoenix. With mismatched furnishings and concrete floors, Lux evokes the urban grunge vibe of Austin or Denver, but here it is, nestled in a small building that used to house -- well, that's not important. Nothing could be as cool as Lux.

The coffee's rich -- "like butter," one regular insists. The art is better than what hangs on the walls of many Phoenix galleries, and the clientele makes for hours of people-watching. Step into Lux and you'll feel like there's a scene in the Valley -- and you're part of it.

There's a buzz in this place, and it's not just the caffeine.

Xtreme Bean Coffee Company
There are those who still mourn the (d)evolution of Gold Bar Espresso, the funky Tempe coffee house that sprawled in an old bank on Southern Avenue, using the vault for poetry readings and the drive-in to make business boom. Gold Bar moved last year to an old TCBY across the street, a victim of landlord battles, and the regulars swore they'd boycott the replacement. But even some of the most loyal Gold Bar patrons haven't been able to curb their curiosity, and have ventured into the new establishment. Gone are the tchotchkes, the wicker and the posters lining the walls that made Gold Bar more like a lived-in dorm room than a place where you'd want to eat and drink.

In fact, everything funky is gone, and we have to admit we don't mind so much. Xtreme Bean is clean and sleek, with beautiful wood tables and Internet access. The front counter is beautifully appointed and the employees wear headsets. The coffee's even pretty good.

Sometimes, sterile's not such a bad thing.

Readers' Choice for Best Coffee House: Starbucks

We used to think that a worthwhile place to enjoy the British tradition of midday tea was as hard to find as a cool patch of shade in our town -- until we discovered Teeter House. Tucked away in downtown's Heritage Square, this posh spot offers several different tea ceremonies five days a week. We go straight for homemade scones and Devonshire cream, and always order traditional finger sandwiches and a pile of the candied walnuts made fresh here every day. Dessert is fussy, just the way we like it: teacakes, petit fours, and wee éclairs just like Mum used to make (or would have, had she been British). Teeter House also serves a four-course evening high tea on the fourth Thursday of every month; otherwise, it's open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and on Sundays from noon to 4 p.m.; reservations are recommended.
Lee Lee Oriental Supermarket
Back in 1990, Meng Truong took a gamble and opened a 2,000-square-foot Asian grocery store. His risk paid off, because today, he is owner of a thriving 52,000-square-foot international bazaar. We've tried to take inventory of all the exotica carried here, and it's impossible, sort of "It's a Small World" of foods and accessories. Besides, we find it difficult to pry ourselves away from the seafood, which is an absolutely incredible display of live and fresh frozen varieties -- some we've never even heard of. Those googly eyes are watching us from their tanks, wondering which of them will be our dinner. Perhaps it'll be live crab, mussels, clams, tilapia, catfish or carp. It could anchovy, flounder or barracuda. Might be salmon belly and head, gaspergou, squid, cuttlefish or massive shrimp. Possibly, we'll just sample them all, like our own private sushi bar. Here, fishy fishy...
Food City
Stop in at Food City and pluck a couple different kinds of peppers out of the produce bins and off the shelves, take them home, roast them up. The fresh chiles are always waxy and pretty, like the Hatch chile verdes, pasillas, jalapeos, serranos and habaneros. The dried ones are convenient for quick meals, including chile de arbol, pasilla-negro, pasilla-ancho, chile guajillo, and hot or mild New Mexican chile pods.

If you need even more, there's a fine selection in the canned food aisle, such as whole jalapeo, whole green chile, and chipotle adobado. Bring on the sizzle!

It's sure not easy keeping kosher. Not with keeping milk separate from meat, as in separate cookware, utensils, bowls and dishes in separate drawers and cabinets, plus two sinks, two disposals, two dishwashers and two ovens (all stainless steel, and blessed by a rabbi).

Even shopping isn't easy. Creatures have to be slaughtered in a prescribed ritual and humane way, with the blood meticulously removed before the flesh is soaked and salted. Eggs must come from kosher birds, and be free of blood spots. This is not your typical stop into Circle K kind of stuff. Never fear, Cactus Kosher is here. Everything in this shop is certified by a rabbi, with traditional staples like gefilte fish, pickles, pastrami, corned beef and deli sandwiches to go. If wishes were knishes, we know where we'd be.

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