Dining Out

Smaller portions spice up Tucson restaurants for spring and summer dining


As Tucson temperatures soar to a sizzle point, local restaurants are marking the change in seasons by offering menus with lighter fare.

Pizza is perennially popular but Rocco’s Little Chicago Pizza on Broadway has added gazpacho and lighter beers to its menu specials. “We make everything from scratch,” says Rocco DiGrazia, owner and current president of Tucson Originals, which includes more than 50 local, independently owned restaurants. “We’re a favorite of young people and crusty old Midwesterners, people who remember living in Chicago in the 1940s,” DiGrazia told the AJP.

Tucson Originals continues to focus on local ingredients. And although many area restaurants still specialize in fine dining, “we keep evolving. Smaller and more homespun eating establishments keep popping up,” notes DiGrazia.

Lodge on the Desert, a Tucson Originals member, is the first restaurant in Tucson to serve wine on tap, which, says Executive Chef Ryan Clark, adds a fresher taste to the wine and is also good for the environment, saving on the use of corks and bottles.

The restaurant holds a monthly wine dinner featuring local wineries and is planning a beer dinner promoting local breweries in the next few months, notes Clark. For summer imbibing, “we’re excited about our new organic bar drinks with five different infusions,” he says.

Lodge on the Desert changes its menu every month. They’re so committed to using local ingredients, says Clark, “I’ve had the experience where prairie dogs ate all the radishes at one farm we use. We had to change the menu.”

Spiffing up fare may be accompanied by restaurant renovations for the new season, which was the case at Le Rendez-Vous. It was time to do something new, both inside and out, says owner/manager Gordon Berger. “We’ve added 10 small plates to the menu, including a mini Beef Wellington,” he says, adding, “it may be a surprise to many diners that the dish is probably French.”

Berger, who spent three years cooking at the Palais Royale in Paris, says that Le Rendez-Vous will continue to serve traditional French dishes such as coq au vin and bouillabaisse. But the small plates are “something the younger crowd would appreciate, something new that’s fun.” And people “don’t want huge portions anymore,” he says. “They also want reduced prices.”

Many local restaurants offer sumptuous Mother’s Day brunches. Tavolino Ristorante Italiano, usually closed on Sundays, will be open this year to celebrate with a price-fixed menu, says Larissa Capizzano, assistant manager and events coordinator.

Tavolino, which has been open for 10 years, specializes in holding private functions on their back patio, including engagement parties and happy hour functions, which Capizzano plans with customers. The restaurant’s wine director helps pair wines with selected dishes.

The backyard view of the Catalina Mountains at the Flying V Bar & Grill, Loews Ventana Canyon Resort, is always a draw, says Jennifer Duffy, public relations director. Matching the food with a Southwestern ambiance is a tradition at the grill, with guacamole prepared tableside. Another amenity they offer is two choices for their Sunday brunch, says Duffy. “Most people go to both. The one on the outside patio is funky and casual” with a local blues band, locally brewed beer and a barbecue. The one inside is a more elegant brunch.

Cool, lighter dishes will highlight the Flying V menu this summer. New items will include watermelon gazpacho, California halibut ceviche and tepary bean vichyssoise. The tepary beans are from the Tohono O’odham Community Action nonprofit dedicated to native foods, says Duffy, adding that “it’s unusual to serve the tepary beans in a cold soup.”

Oro Valley’s Harvest restaurant has had new owners, Reza and Lisa Shapouri, since October. “Our entire menu is homemade and we do all our shopping locally,” says Reza. “We make our own mozzarella cheese, our own pasta, all our sauces and dressings. We serve all-natural, hormone-free chicken, grass-fed beef and wild, not farm-raised, salmon.”

His wife, Lisa, a Tucson native, is a self-taught pastry chef. The month before the couple bought Harvest, the restaurant sold around 160 desserts, says Reza. “Last month, we sold nearly 1,200 desserts. Our food speaks for itself. There’s not a day that goes by when a diner doesn’t say, ‘this is phenomenal or outstanding,’” he says.

Ethnic restaurants abound in Tucson, from Campbell Avenue to Oro Valley. 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. They’re the authentic dishes,” says Abi-Ad. “I don’t modernize them.”

His family has been “involved in food preparation for the last 800 years,” and Abi-Ad has been doing the same in Tucson for the past 35 years. “Many Mediterranean restaurants have come and gone over the years,” he says. “I’ve closed and opened new ones myself but I’m still here.”

Another ethnic restaurant on Campbell Avenue is Yuki’s Sushi and Japanese, run by Leona Watabe. In its casual dining atmosphere a wide range of Japanese dishes are served, including spicy seafood ramen and kamikaze rolls. “We offer a unique dining experience with a combination of traditional Japanese dishes” and modern takes on others, says Watabe. “We have some of the freshest fish available.”

Sullivan’s Steak House has 20 locations around the United States, with Tucson’s on Campbell Avenue and River Road. With nine different types of steak and several choices of sauces, including bourbon peppercorn and Madeira mushroom, the restaurant is a meat-lover’s paradise. For vegetable lovers, there’s an asparagus bisque.

And for a Mother’s Day treat, Tucsonans still have time to “Show Mom Some Love” at Sullivan’s with one of their steaks and a “Momosa.”

With a wide array of Southwestern, ethnic and seafood dining experiences in Tucson, there’s no shortage of restaurants at which to celebrate Mother’s Day with family and friends on Sunday, May 13.