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Conti's brings back fond memories of the food your Italian family used to make

Growing up in an Italian kitchen made me a bit fussy when it comes to eating out Italian-style. Everything is measured by the gold standard: all the great food my female relatives made. Restaurant Italian food is usually a roll of the dice--you win some; you lose some.

But we met with buona fortuna at Conti's Ristorante, a longtime establishment on the northwest side in Cottonwood Plaza. The food was close to any of the goods I ate back home, and the atmosphere was just about as nice.

When we arrived on a Saturday night, we were met with the dulcet tones of a real live piano player and a most friendly hostess. There was a good crowd, many of whom seemed to know the owners; abstract art hung on the rosy toned walls; wonderful smells filled the room (much of the food is cooked in stone ovens); and a family, yet elegant, atmosphere abounded.

The menu reads like a lesson in Italian: antipasto, lemone, saltimbocca, pizzaiola, braciole, gnocchi. The wine list, too, is Italian-influenced, yet still sports a goodly number of vinos Americano. Cocktails and beers are available, although there is no separate bar. Four sauces are available: a chunky, meaty Bolognese; a creamy Alfredo; a meatless marinara; and the meat sauce. (Oh, there is a specific sauce for the pizza, as well.)

Warm, crusty bread was brought to the table almost immediately. The bread is made in the house's stone ovens, and had a thick, crisp crust and an ever-so-slightly chewy texture--just the way Italian bread is supposed to be. That night it was only slightly burnt, but believe me, that really wasn't a problem.

Our server was great; he made us feel welcome as he explained the evening specials. All too often, a server recites the special menu like a kid rattling off a rote lesson in geography. There is none of that feeling at Conti's; the service proved both professional and familial.

We ordered the oven roasted red peppers ($9) as an appetizer--and the baked ziti ($14). John ordered a side of two meatballs ($4); I ordered the veal lemone ($17.50), which comes with a side of spaghetti. While we waited, we sipped a glass of chianti--not the house brand--and enjoyed the piano man.

When our appetizer arrived, I was blown away. I thought there would be a few red peppers with crostini on the side; instead, the plate was heaped high with silky, smooth red peppers enhanced with a touch of olive oil, on a bed of greens dressed in homemade Italian dressing and topped with more green olives than I could count. Huge fingers of mozzarella balanced out the plate, and sliced bread was served with it. Then the server put a large bowl of grated Italian parmesan cheese on the table! I could see eating this dish for a nice lunch; I'd just have to go home and take a nap afterward.

In due time, our entrées arrived. My veal was four practically paper-thin slices of lightly breaded (homemade breadcrumbs, of course) meat in a lemon sauce. The sauce was velvety smooth and rich with butter, with just a trace of garlic. The blend of flavors was heavenly. My side of spaghetti was very good as well, a nice complement to the bright lemony sauce.

John's ziti, the only pasta besides fettuccini that is not homemade, was baked just right--rich with meat sauce and enhanced with ricotta cheese, which added an extra richness to this classic dish. The meatballs were tender and lightly spiced, as close to mine as I've tasted in any Italian restaurant anywhere.

The meat sauce used in both the baked ziti and on my side of spaghetti also hit pretty close to home. All too often, sugo--as we called it--is undercooked or, heaven forbid (according to my Nana), made sweet with the addition of sugar or cinnamon. Conti's sauce was just like mama used to make--just thick enough and blended with only the basic seasonings.

Regrettably, there was no room for dessert. That would have to be saved for the next time. And we knew what we were going to order the next time ... the pizza.

We went to Conti's again on a Sunday evening for said pizza. The place was pretty much empty; only one other table had customers, and as far as the family was concerned, only nonna and poppy were there. We ordered a large thin-crust pizza with sausage ($12). (There is a Siciliano style available as well.) I again ordered the more pricey chianti, and John had a bottle of Moretti Red beer. There was no piano man that night; he's only there on Fridays and Saturdays.

The wait wasn't long. Our server placed the pizza in front of us, and oh, the aroma! The crust was thin and slightly crispy. (John checked the bottom, which was a beautiful golden brown and dusted lightly with cornmeal). The sausage, as nonna explained to us, is made especially for Conti's by a local sausage maker. One bite of the pizza and I was transported back to my Aunt Jenny's kitchen. We used to beg my aunt to make her pizza. How she got the crust so thin was her secret, but obviously Conti's is in on it.

For dessert, we split a cannoli ($4). In Conti's version, the cream was ever so sweet, with an undertone of ricotta and a sprinkling of chocolate chips. Bellisima!

Conti's is open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m.-9 p.m., and on weekends from 4 p.m.-9 p.m. for dinner only. They offer a variety of lunch specials until 3 p.m. ... I want to go back for the eggplant sandwich. There is a full bar.

We will surely return to Conti's, because in spite of the fact that I make the best Italian food in town (I had some great teachers), every now and then, you need the comfort of home away from home. Conti's does that. I'm sure my mother, Nana and Aunt Jenny would approve.

More by Rita Connelly

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