You know that random little eatery that you've driven past a zillion times but never ventured inside of? The one that's right down the block? That's Lo Cascio's Italian Restaurant, a solid looking stucco building just south of Green Vegetarian Restaurant on Scottsdale Rd. in Tempe.
The place has been around for decades, but we first took notice when Worst Cooks in America contestant Kelly Lo Cascio (nee Johnson) mentioned her husband was in the restaurant business. Turns out Lo Cascio's is a family-run joint founded by Sicilian chef Giovanni LoCascio. Even with a new paint job, Lo Cascio's never looked like anything special -- that is, until we spotted banners outside one night advertising $4 spaghetti.
For pasta that cheap, you'll have to venture into the bar; which apparently means avoiding the main entrance and heading out back to a speakeasy door we managed to miss. Ah, well. Since we stumbled in at the tail end of Lo Cascio's lunch hours, we decided to take advantage of the near empty restaurant rather than braving the daydrunks in the bar.
Menu prices average about $10-13, but you can score lunch specials for $5.99-$8.99 until 2 p.m. A meatball sub with melted mozzarella and chicken parm sounded tempting, but we opted for plain spaghetti with meat sauce, offered for the low, low price of $5.99. In the meantime, it was time to take in the "ambience."
The dining room is New York mobster chic, circa 1985, with cutout arches, drop ceiling tiles, black vinyl booths and white linen tablecloths. All it needed was a grizzled old Italian dude with a black suit and a stogie at the head of the table. Damn that smoking ban! The multicolored carpet, wine bottles and velvet flocked chairs brought us back to the East Coast Italian joint where our childhood friend Stacy had her Sweet 16 party.
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So Lo Cascio's isn't modern. Think of it as "retro romantic." Our server provided fresh, hot bread -- not Italian bread as expected, but a seeded hoagie roll. Who cares? It was delicious, and frankly you just don't get hot bread at all in most places, much less with a $6 lunch special. The spaghetti was fully cooked, not al dente, so steer clear if you like your pasta with bite. We didn't mind. It was still tasty and satisfying when paired with a tangy meat-packed marinara and a sprinkle of parmesan.
As we left, an older couple (presumably the Lo Cascios or their kin) bid us goodbye while having a quiet pasta lunch. That's the allure of Lo Cascio's -- it brings you back to a time when friendly neighborhood service was more important than having a trendy vibe or a celebrity chef.