Dining Out

Tucson’s eclectic restaurants tout their specialties — and their history



Restaurants come and go, as do food trends. This spring, Tucson restaurants are extolling their use of the freshest ingredients, locally grown produce — and their place in Tucson “dining out” history.  


Papagayo Mexican Restaurant and Cantina, says owner Bryan Mazon, is a family affair that was started by his great-great-grandfather Alexander Levin as a brewing company in 1866. “We believe we’re one of the oldest restaurant families in Arizona.” 


The Levins were the third family to settle in Tucson between 1864 and 1866 after the Civil War. Levin, who was a Jewish pioneer from Bahn, Prussia, met and married Zenona Molina in Sonora, Mexico, and the couple moved to Tucson, says Mazon. Molina started a small Mexican restaurant inside the brewery situated at the end of Pennington Street, in what is now the Arizona State office building. “We are Tucson history,” says Mazon.


To appeal to today’s dining needs, Mazon’s wife, Maria, who is one of Papagayo’s chefs, created a gluten-free menu that is served daily after 5 p.m.


“Our food is 100 percent healthy,” says Mazon. Although the menu includes cheese and fried dishes, he says, “it doesn’t have the chemicals you find in other fried foods. We’ve been using canola oil since 1975.  


“We were the first Mexican restaurant to move into the Foothills” at Papagayo’s present location at Swan and Sunrise, says Mazon. “My grandfather [Rene A. Perez, Sr.] always wanted to have a destination outside of town, which proved correct when he opened on Fort Lowell in 1973. There are no outskirts now.” 


When it comes to Italian food, the name Scordato has long been synonymous with fine cuisine in Tucson. “We make everything from scratch,” says Joe Scordato, who recently opened Guiseppe’s Ristorante Italiano. “We make all our own sauces, butcher our own meat, and make the sausage ourselves. We offer reasonable prices with the best quality food.” The new Guiseppe’s also offers Telero white and red wine imported from Italy at a good price. “We don’t want people to have to spend their whole paycheck to have a nice dinner out,” he says.


A native of Paterson, N.J., where his father operated an Italian restaurant, Scordato came to Tucson with his family in 1967. They opened the original Scordato’s in 1972. “Our family life has played out in the restaurant business,” says Scordato. “My brothers and I worked in the kitchen. One sister played the piano.”


At Guiseppe’s, “our prices are special year-round. We have the absolute best food you can get for reasonable prices,” he says. “We have happy hour all day.”


Daniel, another Scordato brother, owns Vivace Restaurant at St. Phillip’s Plaza.  His latest venture, Pizzeria Vivace, which opened a year ago, serves specially created thin-crust “artisan pizza,” using Locatelli Pecorino Romano cheese, which he refers to as “Italy’s finest.” 


Daniel Scordato wanted to “do something more casual” than Vivace, a Tucson landmark in Italian fare since 1993. When the space next door to Vivace became available it seemed like a win-win situation, allowing him to easily check on whatever is cooking.


Amereno’s Little Italy, at a new location on Grant Road, prepares authentic Italian food, including such appetizer favorites as antipasto, fried mozzarella, and bruschette, as well as traditional Italian entrees, such as homemade cheese ravioli and eggplant parmigiana. The restaurant also serves Italian wedding soup — a festive dish with or without the accompanying nuptials. In addition, Amereno’s offers a catering service for outside events.


There’s an array of Japanese restaurants in Tucson, but Ginza Sushi & Izakaya, which opened in 2008, is different from most; it serves more than the usual sushi and tempura. The establishment invites diners to share tapas-style small plates, such as Bibimbap Chirashi, consisting of assorted seafood with spicy Korean sauce served over sushi rice, or Japanese fried eggplant.  As in Japan, Ginza Sushi is a place where family and friends can meet to socialize — and try something new.


La Salsa Fresh Mexican Grill is celebrating its 30th year of operation in Tucson. With its constantly changing menu, La Salsa provides a tacqueria, or neighborhood restaurant, with healthy fast food, free tortilla chips, and a salsa bar with eight varieties. Everything is cooked to order at the restaurant’s open grill; the restaurant is currently promoting its green-chili chicken burrito. 


Another Tucson landmark is the Flying V Bar and Grill at Loews Ventana Canyon, which has been in operation at the same location for 25 years, says executive chef Ken Harvey. The Flying V is named after the original ranch located about a mile north of the hotel.


Touting their new spring/summer menu, Harvey says the restaurant carries sustainable seafood that’s flown in daily, is a natural product raised in ocean pens [not farm-raised] and isn’t derived from over-fishing.  “It’s eco-friendly,” he says.


“Instead of appetizers, we’re calling our small plates ‘things you share.’ The small plates are lighter, [and we’re] getting ready for hotter weather,” says Harvey. The Flying V has paired up with the Tohono O’odham nation for mesquite flour and with suppliers in Strawberry, Ariz., for goat cheese, and from Willcox for produce such as squash and tomatoes.  


“Street foods” — little tacos, hot dogs, locally made tortillas are also on the new menu, he says. “We’re also known for our amazing guacamole prepared tableside and our margaritas. 


“The Flying V is one of our most uniquely local restaurants,” says Harvey. “We want to be a leader, not a follower, with what’s new in the food world. We’re always evolving. We want to be known as cutting edge.”


Harvest Restaurant prides itself on its “seasonally inspired cooking.” The restaurant concocts seasonal cocktails using only fresh-squeezed juices and on-the-spot muddled ingredients. Harvest serves grass-fed beef and handmade pasta, including ravioli, gnocchi and fettuccine. Their new summer prix-fixe dinner menu with three courses will run from June 1 to Sept. 30. In addition, Harvest’s Sunset Menu offers seven entrees at a reduced price. 


The Westin La Paloma Resort & Spa, “a premier Southwest destination” since 1986, is nestled on 250 acres at the edge of the Santa Catalina Mountains. The resort — with its spectacular view for Tucsonans and guests alike — will offer a gourmet Mother’s Day brunch on Sunday, May 9. In support of local growers, all its menus offer organic and “regionally responsible” dishes.


Emphasizing the use of indigenous ingredients from the Sonoran Desert, Dos Locos Restaurant and the Sundance Café at the Hilton El Conquistador Golf & Tennis Resort focus on Southwestern cuisine.  The resort has been situated in Oro Valley for 27 years. “If you’re local and you haven’t been out here you’re really missing something,” says Julia Hansen, director of marketing. “What could be better — at any time of year — than sipping the house specialty, a prickly pear margarita, while watching the sunset over Pusch Ridge?”