Cafe Reviews

Slice Guys

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Pino's Pizza Al Centro, 139 West Thomas, Phoenix, 279-3237. Hours: Lunch and dinner, Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.

It took about two seconds for me to feel at home in Pino's. That's because I heard Pino's wife, staffing the "Order Here" counter, calling a whole pizza a "pie," just like they do in New York pizzerias. A thick New York accent and uncommonly sweet manner during the height of a hectic lunch hour added to her charms.

Still, most of the charm here emanates from the kitchen, where Italian-born Pino puts together an exceptional variety of pizzas, pastas and sandwiches.

Set in a small, nondescript strip center, Pino's is not the kind of place you're likely to wheel into on the spur of the moment while whizzing along on Thomas. Inside, though, it's spiffier than you might expect. Italian tourist board posters hang on the walls, shelves hold obligatory cans of Italian tomatoes, and a colorful dried flower arrangement brightens the top of the garbage pail.

Pino's pizzas are first-rate. The crust is dead-on, and so are the toppings. The vegetarian model is heaped with roasted red and green peppers, black olives, mushrooms and onions. The meat eaters' pizza comes stacked with excellent homemade sausage, pepperoni and ham. And if it's simplicity you crave, the Margherita delivers--mozzarella, fresh tomato sauce and fresh basil. The price is also right. These 10-inch specialty pizzas, perfect for a one-person meal, are under six bucks.

The sandwiches and pastas are stunning, some of the best I've had in a while. Served on focaccia, the sandwiches are also as huge as they are tasty. The Italian cheesesteak is thick with beef, and loaded with grilled onions, mushrooms and melted provolone. The oversize meatball parmigiana is equally satisfying.

The pasta makes my mouth water just thinking about it. Pino's idiosyncratic take on penne boscaiola is ravishing: pasta tubes tossed with sauteed ham, fresh mushrooms and homemade sausage, moistened with a light, summery tomato sauce. An occasional special, fettuccine Alfredo, is special indeed. It's embellished with mushrooms and ham, and Pino wisely doesn't let the heavy cream sauce overwhelm the dish.

The only pedestrian item here is the calzone, which inexplicably lacks ricotta cheese filling.

Judging by the lunchtime crowds walking over from nearby Central Avenue office buildings, Pino's has developed a loyal neighborhood following during its two-year run. Once word about this place spreads, Pino's next order of business should be to enlarge his parking lot.

NYPD Pizza, 8880 East Via Linda, Scottsdale, 451-6973. Hours: Lunch and dinner, Sunday through Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Unlike Santisi Brothers and Pino's, which have a touch of urban edginess to them, NYPD has a more suburban feel. That's not surprising--its proprietors are two outgoing brothers, the Ziegler boys, from Long Island.

As befits the Scottsdale address, NYPD Pizza (the initials stand for "New York Pizza Department") has a snazzier look than the west-side Santisi Brothers' or fringe-of-downtown Pino's operations. One wall is painted with a mural of the Manhattan skyline. Another is filled with the scrawled testimonials of happy customers. Street signs indicating the corners of 42nd Street and Broadway furnish a Big Apple reminder. So does the reading rack, stacked with issues of New York magazine.

The Zieglers conclusively demonstrate that your name doesn't have to end in a vowel to run a good pizzeria. That is, as long as you steer away from the thick-crusted Sicilian pizza, which doesn't have much distinction. But the Zieglers get the thin-crust models exactly right.

They say it's the water, which is treated to have the same properties as the Big Apple's famous H2O. Maybe. I'd say the wonderful ingredients--cheese, sauce, toppings--also have something to do with it. The NYPD Blue pizza is especially arresting, gloriously decorated with mounds of ricotta, roasted red peppers and eggplant. The dazzling white pizza, tinged with garlic and olive oil, isn't far behind.

Sandwiches furnish old-neighborhood heft and taste. Sausage-and-peppers isn't for the faint of heart, and it's yummy. Skin-on eggplant parmigiana is a knockout. Of course, good Italian bread helps.

The made-to-order calzone is smashing. Unlike other local versions, whose principal ingredient often seems to be air, this baby is crammed with mozzarella and ricotta, just like you'd find in Little Italy.

Not quite as much effort goes into the ho-hum pasta dishes, which suffer from a certain Italian-American blandness. Neither the baked ziti nor the pasta primavera leaves a lasting impression.

NYPD Pizza proves Thomas Wolfe was wrong: You can go home again. And you don't have to pay a toll to get there, either.

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Howard Seftel