Dining Out

With good works, delicious food, local restaurateurs nurture community

Spectacular views of the Catalina Mountains, live nightly music and globe-spanning cuisines all contribute to Tucson’s trendy dining out scene. Many local restaurants are also extending their role in the community beyond the creation of sumptuous dishes.

Fire + Spice: An Arizona Grill at the Sheraton Tucson Hotel and Suites prides itself on its western fusion specialties, combining Spanish, Mexican and Native American cuisines. With local chorizo rolls and fish taco entrées, and cilantro-lime butter, jalapeno jelly and spiced olive oil accompanying each bread basket, the two-year-old establishment has a burgeoning clientele. One of its signature dishes, says hotel general manager Damen Kompanowski, is sweet potato chiles rellenos, which especially appeal to vegetarians.

But the menu isn’t all that interests Kompanowski. “We believe in giving back to the community,” he says. The restaurant hosts talented local teen jazz musicians three nights a week and has partnered with schools. Last year, Fire + Spice assisted Ft. Lowell Elementary School, where 95 percent of students participated in the subsidized lunch program, says Kompanowski. “Our staff members helped in the classroom with reading [activities], did manual labor like painting rooms and fixed up the playground.”

Flying V Bar & Grill at Loews Ventana Canyon connects with the greater Tucson community through its menu, which includes ingredients from its adopt-a-farmer program. The resort has joined with 12 local farms to provide fresh and often unique ingredients, says head chef Ken Harvey. Not only do the resort’s five eateries use local honey and tortillas, they purchase mesquite flour, white beans, Saguaro seeds and syrup from Toca Farms, part of the Tohono O’odham Community Action program. And, Loews Ventana Canyon goes beyond buying local ingredients and creating local dishes, says Harvey; staff members “actually have classes with and harvest [ingredients] with the farmers.”

Although the Flying V Bar menu boasts entrees as varied as root vegetable lasagna and bison burgers, it’s the tableside guacamole that Harvey touts. The traditional and not-so-traditional ingredients vary by season, include mangoes in the summer and pumpkin, squashes and roasted corn in the fall. Reliance on local food sources, as well as only purchasing seafood from sustainable fisheries, says Harvey, “is what sets us apart.”

What’s unique about the Italian cuisine at Guiseppe’s, says chef/owner Joe Scordato, is that “we make everything from scratch — meatballs, sausage, bread, all our sauces and desserts. We give people fine dining at an affordable price, and you don’t have to spend half your paycheck if you’re not rich.”

Many of Guiseppe’s original Italian recipes come from Scordato’s mother, the late Ann Scordato. “We enjoy feeding our customers. We’re more than just a restaurant,” says Scordato, whose family moved to Arizona in 1963 from Paterson, N.J., because of his brother Daniel’s severe asthma. The family opened Scordato’s in 1972.

At Guiseppe’s, “we have a huge following; some people eat here two or three times a week. That’s the best part,” says Scordato, “seeing people who return again and again. Locally owned businesses make Tucson a really nice place to be.” Restaurants contribute a lot to Tucson’s economy, he says, adding, “We don’t have a million dollar advertising budget like the big chains. We care about quality food and building relationships.”

Classic American dishes with a Southwestern twist are Bistro 44’s specialty, says Rick Siegler, who co-owns the restaurant with his wife, Sara. “We use Red Bird free range chicken from Colorado for our very popular chicken and dumplings. Very few restaurants go to the added expense to use it. We also use all Certified Angus Beef.”

Bistro 44, which opened in January 2007, “goes for traditional quality. We don’t skip any steps,” says Siegler, adding that the kitchen staff prepares fresh mashed potatoes eight to 10 times nightly, rather than leaving potatoes sitting under heat lamps.

“We take a lot of pride in serving quality food,” he says. “People are pleasantly surprised that we’re not overly pricey.” And, says Siegler, “We serve a diverse menu. Bistro 44 is family friendly, a great place for everyday eating out or for celebrating a special occasion.”

While Vivace Restaurant has been a mainstay of elegant Italian dining, owner Daniel Scordato opened Pizzeria Vivace at St. Philip’s Plaza in 2009. “It’s not your typical pizzeria,” says Daniel. “I always wanted to do more casual Italian food. I was a big fan of Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, which may have been the first one in America to make artisan-type sophisticated crust. I thought it would be fun to do that in Tucson.

“It’s all about the crust,” notes Daniel, adding that you’ll see thinner crusts in New York City, while in Chicago, deep-dish crusts rule. Neither are like pizzas prepared in Naples, Italy, with crusts “that get that bubbliness, and have very simple artisan toppings, [most often] mozzarella cheese, basil and tomato sauce,” he says. “We use Kalamata olives, not canned California black olives.”

Daniel is passionate about his pizza making: “Our crust takes two days to make. We use biga, or starter in Italian, to develop the flavor. We use hand-made artisan cheeses. You can’t judge pizza by what you’ve eaten your whole life,” he says. “I thought Tucson diners are more sophisticated and would appreciate something a little different.”

The Westin La Paloma Resort has also made a recent change, converting its 25-year-old Desert Gardens restaurant into the Azul Restaurant Lounge last November. “We went for a more modern, Mediterranean theme,” says Richard Brooks, director of sales and marketing. “We even have a charcuterie station for specialty meats. We wanted to be more of a destination restaurant for the local population.” In addition, the new Azul rewards program features monthly e-mail specials and discounts on future meals.

Azul offers a happy hour nightly from 4:30-7:30 p.m. On Thursday nights Elizabeth Arden Red Door Spa personnel give free chair and hand massages, and Azul hosts Friday Night Live with acoustic guitar music. Terrace dining around the restaurant’s two newly installed fire pits, says Brooks, “contributes to the great ambiance.”

Tucson’s world-class resorts draw visitors from all over the world. Tourists from across the United States, Israel, Egypt and Lebanon have told Joe Abi-Ad, owner of Falafel King, that he serves “the best falafel, hummus and tabouli they’ve ever had, the authentic dishes. I don’t modernize them.”

Abi-Ad has been preparing Mediterranean dishes in Tucson for 35 years, but he notes that his Lebanese family has been “involved in food preparation for the last 800 years.” When he first settled in Tucson it was hard to find all the essential ingredients, but now they’re all readily available.

“When I first came here there were only 300,000 people,” says Abi-Ad. “Many Mediterranean restaurants have come and gone over the years. I’ve closed and opened new ones myself but I’m still here. My daughter Mary will graduate from culinary school in Scottsdale in 2011. I hope she’ll take over the business.”

For a traditional Japanese dinner, Tucsonans can head to Ginza Sushi, which opened in 2007. The restaurant serves izakaya, which are similar to Spanish tapas, offering diners small portions of different sushi to try, says co-owner Diana Arai. She’s particularly fond of the ceviche sushi roll concocted by her husband, co-owner Jun, combining her Mexican heritage with the Japanese favorite. The roll includes albacore tuna with spices and lime juice.

La Salsa Fresh Mexican Grill offers an authentic tacqueria, or neighborhood Mexican dining experience, with a constantly changing menu. “We serve healthy fast food, free tortilla chips and have a salsa bar with eight varieties of salsa,” says Margie Fenton, director of marketing. “All our food is cooked to order” and changes with the season, including a cranberry salsa around Thanksgiving that customers will start asking for soon. And, she adds, “When you see the snow on Mt. Lemmon, it’s time for chicken tortilla soup.”

American Southwestern, Mediterranean, Jamaican and even Irish fare comprise the “hodgepodge of cuisines that we favor” at Pastiche Modern Eatery, says Julie Connors, who has co-owned the Tucson restaurant with her husband, Pat, for 12 years. The Connors’ propensity for inclusion extends to their customer base: “We have our regulars in the community,” says Connors. “There’s a bond, like an extended family in a way.”

Besides their award-winning cuisine, Connors says that “philanthropic involvement, giving back to the community” is important to her and Pat, who initiated the “Philanthropy with Phlavor” promotion in which other Tucson restaurants participate. Throughout the months of October and June, patrons can designate 5 percent of their check to a nonprofit of their choice.

Pastiche offers specials such as Tuesday steak night, when customers can enjoy a $15 steak dinner with a full salad and two sides. The restaurant also offers customers smaller bistro-size portions. “The reduced prices,” says Connors, “help their pocketbooks as well as their tummies.”

New York-sized portions are what owner Dean Greenberg has in mind at Shlomo & Vito’s New York Delicatessen — as well as evoking memories of the Big Apple. “I have a passion to bring the New York experience to Tucson,” he told the AJP.

As for the name of his deli, Greenberg says, “growing up in New York, Jews and Italians were interchangeable.” During the 1950s, his family and their Italian neighbors would cook a special Jewish-Italian meal to cheer everybody up, he says, if the Brooklyn Dodgers lost.

Recently, Greenberg, who also runs a money management firm, visited the Stage and Carnegie delis in New York. “I was surprised and disappointed,” he says. “I wanted to find out what they were doing better than us.”

Instead Greenberg discovered “our corned beef and pastrami that we get from Sy Ginsberg [from Detroit] beat theirs.” And in New York, he adds, “they don’t even give pickles anymore.”