Cafe Reviews

Saucy Servings

Let me share a little secret with you: Journalists love to eat and eat well, but we're also notoriously cheap. In part, this has to do with the fact that almost no one gets rich off scribbling for a living. And probably, deservedly so, if you judge by what's sometimes scribbled these days. Nonetheless, newspaper people, without a fault, have delusions of grandeur. And folks with delusions of grandeur and limited resources generally do not pick up the check.

Indeed, one of the most amusing moments of dining with my colleagues comes when the bill's brought around, and everyone roundly ignores it for as long as is possible in the hopes some schmuck (usually the one writing this column) will relent and grab it. The moment invariably reminds me of that classic skit performed by the patron saint of all skinflints, Jack Benny. In it, the comedic cheapskate of yesteryear is challenged by an armed thief with the demand, "Your money or your life!" A long, uncomfortable pause ensues. Prodded by the thief, Benny finally replies, "Don't rush me, I'm thinking it over."

Most print journos can empathize with Mr. Benny's dilemma, though I'm sure our more prosperous cousins in TV would think us mad for doing so. By William Randolph Hearst's ghost, all we ask for is a cheap meal, well-prepared and easy on the tummy! Perhaps that's why so many of New Times' writers and editors lunch and sup at Giuseppe's Italian Kitchen, a little neighborhood pasta joint at 28th Street and Indian School, where, for less than $20, you can chow down like John Goodman after a 10-day fast.

Many are the Dutch treats I've enjoyed with colleagues and bosses at this charming, low-maintenance eatery where the walls are hung with classic Italian pasta adverts, and the tables are decorated with Grey Goose or Vox vodka bottles converted into vases. The tablecloths are made of plastic, for easy cleanup, and instead of menus, patrons consult blackboards inscribed with the many Italian dishes offered. Though the restaurant serves water, tea, sodas, espresso and cappuccino, it's strictly BYOB when it comes to wine or beer, with a piddling $3 corkage. Thus the damage Giuseppe's can do on our anorexic writers' wallets is limited.

A "bucket" of spaghetti and meatballs -- that's five portions of spaghetti and meatballs -- costs but $24, and people come in with their own jumbo pots to fill up and take home. This bucket gimmick might not be so much of a surprise if the quality were subpar, but on the contrary, Giuseppe's has the best plate of spaghetti and meatballs in Phoenix, with a marinara sauce that'd make a modern-day Roman kiss Giuseppe's black-and-white checkered floor like it was his mama's cheek. The meatballs are fat fists of ground sirloin, which, unlike many I've had elsewhere in the Valley, are not over-salted or over-seasoned. And the pasta is magnìfico. On Fridays and Saturdays, it's made fresh on the premises. Otherwise, Giuseppe's uses a good Italian pasta, cooked just soft enough to chew with ease.

But even if you eschew the bucket o' pasta, you can eat like a Borgia pope for a minor outlay of ducats. I adore all of the appetizers I've had at Giuseppe's, including the suppli di riso, two brown balls of mozzarella and risotto that are breaded, fried and served on a plate with some of Giuseppe's delicious marinara sauce to the side. The marinara is prepared there each morning, and you can actually savor the sweetness of the crushed tomatoes, whereas with other Italian spots in town, they like to overdo it with the add-ins to the point that you can't even taste the ruby red fruit. I suspect this is a strategy implemented at such establishments to hide the fact that the marinara is not fresh. But Giuseppe's has no need for such subterfuge.

Another of my faves in the appetizer category is the fried eggplant, which also makes terrific use of Giuseppe's marinara, with thin breaded strips of eggplant bathed in the sauce and topped with melted mozzarella. Giuseppe's antipasto is above average, with lettuce, onions, carrots, Italian ham, pepperoncini (those pickled Tuscan peppers I love so much), wrinkled black Sicilian olives, roasted peppers, and sliced tomatoes, all topped with olive oil, vinegar and spices. Then there's the simple yet exquisite prosciutto and melon, cured Italian ham wrapped around long, sticky slices of pale orange cantaloupe. Why isn't this last item on more Italian menus in this city, I wonder? Still, if it were, I'm willing to bet that we'd have to pay through the proboscis for it, whereas, at Giuseppe's, you can get it for under a fiver.

All the snooty, high-end Eye-tie places in Phoenix must really loathe Giuseppe's, because this combination of authenticity and value gives the lie to Giuseppe's Armani-clad competitors. If one goes out on a regular basis, suddenly you have a yardstick by which you can judge Italian eateries. In light of Giuseppe's ricotta-rich lasagna or its spaghetti alla carbonara, made of pancetta, sautéed onion and beaten egg, so many other places are simply found wanting. For example, I'd put Giuseppe's creamy, rose-hued cardinale sauce up against any pricey pasta served at Daniel's or il Palazzetto. And Giuseppe's bruschetta is quite unlike the anemic offerings I've run into elsewhere in this city. Atop nice-sized round slices of this Italian garlic toast, you can choose from such toppings as fresh tomato with basil, sautéed tri-colored peppers, pecorino romano marinated in olive oil and basil, and, the best of the lot, slow-cooked chunks of pork on a bed of marinara and topped with melted mozzarella, so it's almost like eating a mini pizza.

Giuseppe's has been around since the early '80s, and has gone through anywhere from four to six owners, depending on whom you ask. But the current owner/chef Richard Bock -- whose "day job" (so to speak) is as first cellist for the Phoenix Symphony -- deserves most of the credit for re-creating Giuseppe's as a bargain pasta house that can rival the big boys. Bock's musical C.V. is impressive. The cat's played with everyone from Celine Dion and Tony Bennett to Frank Sinatra and Luciano Pavarotti. In front of the restaurant are autographed pics from friends like Doc Severinsen of the old Tonight Show fame, and in the back, there's a passageway lined with Bock's achievements as a musician. He's always liked to cook, but it was during a nearly 10-year stint in Florence as first cellist with the orchestra there that Bock, a native New Yorker of Hungarian-Czech descent, became enamored of Italian cuisine.

"Those years in Italy, so many of my friends were so involved with food," explains Bock, an amiable gent with pale blue eyes and a salt-and-pepper beard. "I just seemed to gravitate toward the restaurant people. I think if I hadn't gone into music at an early age, I would have been in the restaurant business [sooner]."

Bock had stuck his toe in restaurant waters before Giuseppe's, but it was when the neighborhood staple became available two years ago that he decided to jump in like a kid doing a cannonball in the municipal pool. Business has steadily improved with word-of-mouth recommendations, but according to Bock, it's always a challenge to maintain his vision of an affordable hole-in-the-wall with gourmet-friendly fare.

"Some people come in here, they eat the food and they wonder why I don't raise my prices," he says. "I tell them, 'You're not the only people who come in here.' About a quarter of the people wouldn't like it if we raised our prices. I just feel what we're doing is the right thing to do."

Bock's democratic attitude is borne of having lived in a place like Florence where an outstanding meal is an everyday occurrence, and it's also part of the character of the man himself, for whom Giuseppe's is a real labor of love. If Bock were some recent graduate of a culinary institute or some hotshot chef on the make, he would have upped the prices 30 percent and done away with the friendly BYOB policy, and most of us could only afford to eat there once a month, rather than once or twice a week, as I and my miserly co-workers do.

I must mention in passing that Giuseppe's longtime waitress Cindi Gault provides flawless service with true warmth, an aspect of dining I'm newly appreciative of in light of my atrocious experience last week at Uptown 713. I fear I haven't given Giuseppe's menu all the plaudits it deserves. But whether it's penne al salmone, spaghetti al Gorgonzola, or rigatoni with sausage, it's all good, people. Down at heels we tightwad journalists may be, but stupid we are not.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons