Whether it’s Northern Italian, spicy Southwestern dishes, or gluten-free pizza, Tucson restaurants are concocting adventurous, affordable cuisine this spring.
“We’re introducing Northern Italian dishes that are light and fresh, like pappardelle pasta with green beans and basil-dominated pesto,” says Larissa Capizzano, Tavolino Ristorante Italiano event coordinator. “Our pasta is made in-house. Our dishes are not the heavy chicken parmesan that people often think of as Italian food.”
Tavolino Ristorante Italiano is locally owned, although the chef and manager hail from Italy. “We have a welcoming Italian atmosphere with personality and charm,” Capizzano told the AJP.
A different kind of old-world charm is evident at Falafel King. Owner Joe Abi-Ad has a long family history of food preparation — around 700 years in his native Lebanon. “Everybody tells me I make the most authentic, best-tasting falafel in Tucson” at affordable prices, says Abi-Ad, who traveled to Lebanon last summer. “I try to educate people about Middle Eastern food,” he says. He got the idea for a new eggplant salad on his trip, but, he adds, “it’s labor intensive, has to be made fresh and sell that day.”
Abi-Ad also caters for private parties and fills special orders, especially for lamb dishes. “I don’t use domestic lamb but only the best lamb, which comes from New Zealand.”
Guiseppe’s Ristorante Italiano takes similar pride in its ethnic food preparation. “Everything is homemade at Guiseppe’s,” says Joshua Velderrain, who co-owns the restaurant with his brother and chef, Israel. “Our prices are very low with good-sized portions and a really affordable wine list. Our food and service are much better than at any chain restaurant.” Homemade desserts change every other day and often include fresh fruit.
With summer and warmer temperatures coming, Guiseppe’s will offer more salads, lighter fish entrees, and a new menu item — cold cucumber soup. For Mother’s Day the restaurant will serve a special petite filet mignon, Tuscan style.
Shlomo & Vito’s New York Delicatessen will offer a Mother’s Day brunch this year with a buffet that uses its whole courtyard, including meat-carving stations and Jewish specialties such as kugel and blintzes.
“Our customers are looking for consistency,” says owner Dean Greenberg. “They want a knish or pastrami sandwich just like you get in the best New York delis. We’ve got the Jewish concept, the Italian concept and the diner concept.” People can come in at 7 p.m. and get an omelet or pancakes for dinner. “We have lots of choices, like a diner, and serve everything all day,” he says. Then there are the desserts: “We make them all in-house. My favorite is the key lime pie,” he says.
“People eat with their eyes. Make it big, make it tasty so they want to come back for more,” says Greenberg.
Tucson Originals, a marketing association of 48 locally owned restaurants, capitalizes on the uniqueness of the Old Pueblo’s independently owned eating establishments. Currently, with the growing move toward healthier eating, Tucson restaurants are “anxious to put spring veggies on their menus,” says Norma Gentry, owner of Proventures Marketing, Networking & Creative Talent, which represents Tucson Originals. “Farmers are now producing much larger organic crops, so there’s more competition.”
Renee’s Organic Oven, formerly Eclectic Pizza and one of the Tucson Originals, now uses only organic ingredients, serves organic wines and offers gluten-free pizza, says Gentry. Vero Amore has also started to make gluten-free pizza. And other Originals such as Lodge on the Desert, Acacia, Kingfisher and Maynard’s Market & Kitchen use sustainably raised beef and chicken “whenever possible,” she says. Chad’s Steakhouse, Pastiche Modern Eatery and Frankie’s Philly Cheesesteaks use Certified Angus Beef, although it’s not local. In addition, many of the Tucson Originals are “trying biodegradable take-out containers,” adds Gentry.
Tucson Original restaurants “have raised awareness that there’s a brand of places to go that are unique to Tucson,” says Pat Connor, co-owner of Pastiche and president of the restaurant association. “Chain restaurants are a dime a dozen. You can find them in any city. Consumers here have choices” of among the Tucson Originals that support community events. Last year alone, says Connor, “Pastiche did 46 charity events.” The Originals’ summer initiative will begin on June 1, with every member restaurant promoting an item or meal for $20.11.
Tucson’s resort restaurants also want to cater to local diners throughout the year. Azul Restaurant and Lounge at the Westin La Paloma Resort & Spa serves lunch and dinner, offers happy hour specials, free valet parking, and live outdoor music. And their menu is always changing. “When people return we want to give them something new to enjoy,” says Richard Brooks, director of marketing.
The Flying V at Loews Ventana Canyon has a new deck and has added fire pits for outdoor dining or cocktails, adding to the ambiance, which includes a waterfall, says Mark Lindsay, Ventana Canyon director of sales and marketing. Their gazpacho is made with Willcox tomatoes, and local citrus is used in salads, says Geneya Sauro, director of food and beverage.
Delicious cuisine is important at local restaurants but the dining-out environment also draws customers. Accomplished high school musicians, who play jazz every Tuesday and Saturday, have a following at the Sheraton’s Fire + Spice: An Arizona Grill. “Flavors inspired by the Sonoran Desert and the Southwest are our specialty,” says Damen Kompanowski, general manager. “Our fish tacos are very popular because they’re grilled, not deep fried, and are served with a distinctive Arizona rice and grilled veggies. Our jalapeño snake bites are amazing.”
Ginza Sushi co-owner Diana Raiman says her husband and chef, Jun Arai, enjoys personalizing dishes for their regular customers. If people sit at the sushi bar “Jun will offer omakase, or chef’s choice, [that means ‘it’s up to you’ in Japanese], says Raiman. “I recommend that people try new things, tell Jun their [food] likes and dislikes. Be adventurous.”