Tomato Head

It's one of the eternal mysteries of dining in the Valley, one I've yet to solve despite many a sleepless night spent contemplating same: Why are Phoenix chefs so averse to tomatoes? What did the ruby-red fruit ever do to them? Have they seen Attack of the Killer Tomatoes one too many times? Or are they so obsessed with their white truffle oils, shiitake mushrooms, and fingerling potatoes that the common Lycopersicon lycopersicum has been rendered déclassé? Perhaps they all had nannies who force-fed them Campbell's tomato soup until they yakked.

I feel like I'm reenacting that scene in Young Frankenstein where Peter Boyle's monster meets the blind hermit. You know, the one where the hermit tells him, "Fire good!" Except here I am, saying, "Tomato good!" Hundreds of years ago, when tomatoes were discovered in the New World by Spanish explorers and first brought to Europe, folks wrongly believed they were poisonous because they belonged to the same family as deadly nightshade. Nowadays, of course, we know the opposite is true, and that besides being affordably delish, they're chock-full of cancer-fighting antioxidants.

So why is it that when you walk into most Italian joints in this town, they dole out tomato sauce like it's worth its weight in gold bullion? Moreover, they seem to be at a loss as to how to produce satisfactory marinara, or meatballs worthy of the name.


Redendo's Pizzeria

16948 East Shea Boulevard (at Shea and Saguaro boulevards, next to Circle K), Fountain Hills

Spaghetti and meatballs: $6.50
Eggplant Parmigiana over spaghetti: $7.95

Caesar salad: $3.95
Cannoli: four for $4.95

480-816 -1356 (http:// fhaz.com/redendos). Hours: Monday through Thursday, 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 10: 30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 8 p.m.

Not so at Redendo's Pizzeria and Pasta in Fountain Hills. Here, chef Anthony Redendo and his co-owner and spouse Carolyn Redendo serve New York-style pizza and pasta true to their roots in Queens and Manhattan, respectively. I'll even put my rep on the line and say that Chef Anthony's spaghetti and meatballs kicks the collective keister of every other Italian spot in town. See, Redendo's serves a man-sized bowl of well-prepared Italian pasta, heavily laden with a generous portion of thick, zesty marinara, and topped with immense spheres of silky meat so tender you'll swear there's veal in every bite, though Chef Anthony assures me it's all beef.

"You've got to be gentle when you're making meatballs," says the 36-year-old chef, who teaches culinary classes at Phoenix College by day and takes over from wife Carolyn at night. "Sometimes I think people over-stir them. As for the marinara, it's all about good tomatoes, fresh garlic, and slow cooking."

Once I'm officially crowned Epicurean-in-Chief of the Valley, with Stalin-like powers to boot, every chef of Eye-tie eats will be compelled to take classes with Chef Anthony, or off with their heads! I don't care if they bleed the Italian tricolor if you cut them or if they have their own show on the Food Network, everyone in this city's getting a remedial course in how to make meatballs and marinara again. So let it be written, so let it be done!

Of course, there's a lot more to Redendo's than just this particular prize-deserving dish. The pizza is thin-sliced and Brooklyn-worthy, with a lot less grease than you find on Gotham's, though it's probably a good thing that you don't have to pat your pizza dry with a napkin at Redendo's like you do with NYC slices. (They also make square, Sicilian-style pies, an almost unheard-of treat in Arizona.) However, the fat garlic knots are sure to make Five Borough expats long for home. These baked pizza-dough twists are tossed in herbs and roasted garlic and presented with a dish of marinara for dipping. They're tasty enough for what the residents of Crooklyn call in their patois a "pizza paula."

Professor Anthony should similarly school his fellow Phoenix restaurateurs on what a Caesar salad is all about: crunchy Romaine with Parmesan, croutons, and a house-made dressing that has a faint tang of anchovies. Please, no letters on the history of the Caesar salad, people. The original did not actually include anchovies or use anchovy paste, but for those of us who truly hail Caesar, the hint of anchovies -- if not the actual little fishies themselves -- is a necessity. In addition, Chef Anthony's antipasto salad is well above average, with Romaine, mozzarella, marinated artichoke hearts (yum), ham, pepperoni, and chunks of pomme d'amour, the "apple of love," what our friends the French once called the tomato.

On Redendo's bill of fare is also a satisfying lasagna Bolognese baked in a four-cheese meat sauce, and a melt-in-your-mouth eggplant Parmigiana that's served over a huge mound of spaghetti with sauce and thick mozzarella. But next to his spaghetti and meatballs, what I like best is his penne a la vodka: pasta tubes smothered in a light, pink sauce with bits of onion and pomodori.

For dessert, you absolutely must try one of Redendo's cannoli, which at $1.75 for one and $4.95 for four are cheap, but not cheaply made. The shells are crisp, the sweet ricotta filling is divine, and on each end are mini chocolate chips, as opposed to the too-big ones that many places use. It's small touches like these that show you that the proprietors have put time and care into the dishes they craft.

This extra effort is also obvious in the detailed application of the restaurant's theme, "New York City circa the 1940s." Everything from Redendo's plump, pizza-pie-carrying chef logo to the red brick detailing added by the owners enhances the small, candle-lit space and transforms what otherwise might have been an ordinary pizzeria to a real dining experience. You might find this hard to believe, what with Redendo's being right beside a Circle K, in the rock-and-saguaro-encircled hamlet of Fountain Hills, but Chef Anthony and family have gone to great pains to deliver an ambiance inspired by the Big Apple in wartime.

Black-and-white pics of Sinatra abound, as do reproductions of World Series posters from the '40s, photos of WWII fighter planes, and "ads" like this one for a beer from a then-member of the Axis, which shows a Japanese girl in a kimono, and the words, "Sapporo, the only beer Yanks can drink with Tojo and Yamamoto." Stepping into Redendo's is like stepping into a scene out of Steven Spielberg's 1941. Why, the men's restroom has a "latrine" motif, with stills from Hogan's Heroes for company! Amazing. Open a Redendo's in central Phoenix, Anthony, and I may have to call the place home.

E-mail stephen.lemons@newtimes.com

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