Remembrance of Things Pasta

 Piazza Gavi’s Calamari Crema.

Caffe Milano’s Cozze Alla Diavola.

The Antipasto from Guiseppe’s Ristorante Italiano.

Remembrance of Things Pasta

Whether you are nostalgic for your Italian grandmother’s cooking, or simply hunger for the many hearty options offered by Italian
cuisine, here are some local spots that are dedicated to authenticity.

Piazza Gavi
5415 N. Kolb Rd., (520) 577-1099,

Chef and owner Gaetano “Gavi” Colaleo opened his first restaurant in Tucson in 1992 to great acclaim. Even though the 1,200-square-foot eastside space couldn’t accommodate everyone all at once, that didn’t stop locals from turning out. “People would stand in line in the parking lot, waiting to get inside,” Colaleo recalls. “Now Piazza Gavi serves the grandchildren of our original customers.”

His many years of success and loyal patrons culminated in the opening of Piazza Gavi, with the same focus on authentic, made-to-order food. Placing the restaurant in Tucson’s northeast foothills was no accident. “I am from a small town in Italy. The location reminded me of the piazza or town square,” Colaleo says. “My love of creating new dishes and having people enjoy them in this setting is inspiring to me.”

On the menu, you’ll find classic Italian dishes you’ve come to expect, like the combination Parmigiana plates — veal, chicken, pork, eggplant — where mercifully you don’t have to choose just one. Seafood specialties also make up a large portion of the menu, such as shrimp romana with rosa sauce and fresh mushrooms; mussels marinara; or cioppino. The pizza menu lets diners choose their own toppings, or one of the chef’s creations like the Corleone (anchovies, capers, black olives) or the Sicilian (fresh mozzarella, Kalamata olives, romano cheese). But according to Colaleo, the chicken formaggio is by far the most popular dish — chicken breast stuffed with spinach and four cheeses, then topped with shrimp, artichokes, roasted bell peppers, all in a spicy rosa sauce.

Piazza Gavi also now offers breakfast, as well as lunch and dinner. Colaleo muses some guests are with them for the better part of the day. “It’s truly la locanda degli amici, which translates to a meeting place for friends.”

Caffe Milano
46 W. Congress St.
(520) 628-1601,

Although originally opened 20 years ago, this downtown Italian eatery has experienced a revamp thanks to current owner and chef Fulvia Steffenone, who bought the business four years ago. Steffenone, known as La Fufi, is an authentic Italian chef and haute cuisine teacher who brings her many years of experience in Italy to the local culinary scene.

If the restaurant’s subtle ambience, with its exposed brick walls and artwork representing Milan, doesn’t sweep you away to northern Italy, the menu surely will. “The style of our recipes is true Italian,” Steffenone explains. “You won’t find fettucine Alfredo or spaghetti and meatballs, because they are not representative of contemporary Italian cuisine.” The menu is broken up into starters, first, and second courses, as anyone who has dined in a café in Italy will recognize.

Primi piatti (first dishes) range from penne con salsiccia piccante e funghi porcini made with spicy sausage and mushrooms, to tagliatelle al ragù. “Our ragù sauce is prepared with a very old and traditional recipe, and needs to be simmered up to four hours,” says Steffenone. Offerings from the second plates are focused more on meat and fish like the brasato al Barolo, consisting of roast beef that’s been slow cooked with Barolo wine, and the tonno a scottadito, seared tuna cooked in red wine with spinach, almonds, and pecorino cheese.

For dessert, you’ll have to make a tough decision between sweet choices such as strawberries with limoncello, panna cotta topped with a berry purée, or the classic tiramisu — one of the more popular desserts, according to Steffenone. And if you enjoyed yourself, you may want to return for one of their cooking school events.

Vivace Restaurant
6440 N. Campbell Ave.
(520) 795-7221,

Perched in the foothills, overlooking the great expanse of Tucson, Vivace resides in the former home of Anthony’s in the Catalinas. This spacious and beautifully redone spot is a dramatic change from the two earlier locations of the restaurant.

“Our patrons love the great views,” says Owner Daniel Scordato. “The tables are more spaced out compared to our St. Philip’s location, and the bar is separate from the dining room. We also now have a private dining room for parties, which our customers have been requesting for a long time.”

What hasn’t changed over the years is Scordato’s unwavering and unique approach to Italian cooking, which he learned from Giulano Bugialli in Florence, Italy. “I also use many recipes that were handed down to me from my family’s restaurant in New Jersey.” The menu offers traditional fare, as well as some less-common options like a fontina-and-spinach-stuffed pork chop with Marsala wine sauce, or seafood soup with a red pepper and tomato broth full of scallops, shrimp, salmon and fettucine.

But if you ask Scordato, the go-to item on his menu is a chicken breast stuffed with crab, served with a demi-glace cream sauce. Make sure to end your meal with something decadent from Vivace’s dessert menu, whether you’re inclined toward the layered flavors of spumoni ice cream or the decadent warm bread pudding made with apples and caramel sauce.

Guiseppe’s Ristorante Italiano
6060 N. Oracle Rd., (520) 505-4187,

After working together 15 years prior, three friends teamed up to create Guisseppe’s, serving rustic Italian food in Oro Valley. Joe Scordato (brother of Vivace’s Daniel Scordato), Omar Beltran and Josh Velderrain first opened almost eight years ago. “We were just a bunch of friends who liked working together, and wanted a place that was inviting to everyone — casual, not too fancy,” explains Velderrain. Now his brother, Israel Velderrain, is head chef and easing into becoming a partner as well.

Count that as mission accomplished when considering the homecooked style dishes, warm atmosphere, and portions so generous you’ll likely take home leftovers. Velderrain notes that what makes Guisseppe’s stand out is their emphasis on making everything in house rather than outsourcing. “We’re dedicated to making everything here, down to the meatballs and sausage, which takes time but makes all the difference.”

Using many of the Scordato family recipes as a springboard, the menu boasts traditional Italian dishes, including clams with fennel sausage and white wine tossed with linguine, prosciutto-laced Bolognese, layered cheesy eggplant Parmesan, stuffed cannelloni, and bruschetta piled high with house-made burrata cheese.
If you’re looking for what keeps regulars coming back, go for the spicy sausage and penne baked in tomato sauce and mozzarella. Or the lamb osso bucco: “The whole process takes four hours. We braise the lamb in butter and oil, then make a thick stew with vegetables and red-wine tomato sauce,” Velderrain says.

3800 W. Starr Pass Blvd.
(520) 791-6071,

This Italian and Mediterranean-inspired restaurant, located within the JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort & Spa, is the third of its kind, owned by two-time James Beard Award-winner Melissa Kelly. Having received her very first culinary lessons in her Italian grandmother’s kitchen, it makes sense that Primo’s emphasis is on simple, fresh flavors, sourcing local organic ingredients whenever possible.

In fact, windows of the dining room overlook a tiered garden full of herbs and vegetables that the kitchen uses regularly. Kelly also strives to use free-range meat, line-caught seafood, and other sustainable ingredients.
The menu is seasonal, focusing on traditional Italian flavors with influence from France and Spain, and is coordinated with that particular day’s harvest. No matter what’s on the menu, you can expect fresh, bright flavors alongside traditional ones. Here, pork saltimbocca made with spinach, prosciutto, and mushroom sage jus, rubs elbows with the likes of red snapper served with potato gnocchi, mussels, pancetta and peas. And to add that big casual, family dinner feel, look for weekly specials like spaghetti and meatball night or all-you-can-eat mussels.

A seeming match made in heaven, Primo’s co-owner Price Kushner is the baker/pastry chef, and also happens to be Kelly’s husband. No meal is complete without sampling from his decadent dessert menu, where you can choose between sweet options like affogato, with espresso poured over gelato, or zeppole — cinnamon-sugar-covered Italian donuts.

North Italia
La Encantada, 2995 E. Skyline Dr.
(520) 299-1600,

When Vito Prencipe came on board as general manager of North Italia five years ago, the restaurant had just undergone a major concept and menu change to become its current iteration. The eatery focuses on regional, from-scratch dishes, honoring the many varying ingredients and flavors found in different parts of Italy.

“Many people think of Italian food as pizza and pasta, which is of course accurate, but Italy has 20 different regions, each with their own unique cultures, ingredients, and ideas about flavor,” says Prencipe, who joined the restaurant directly from Italy. “There’s cuisine from the north and south, but in the middle is a great melting pot — and that’s what’s on our menu.”

Every single region of the country is celebrated in offerings on both the menu and wine list, but to represent the entirety of Italian food, Prencipe points to the Bolognese as their house specialty: “The Bolognese is a traditional meat sauce, and considering it takes six hours to make, it’s really the best example of Italian cuisine you can find.” Here it’s served with housemade tagliatelle noodles and grana padano cheese.
For those not sure what to order, the safest place to start is the chef’s board with meats and cheeses, each from a different region of the country. “Why not taste a little of everything before choosing from the menu? That’s an important step in the dining process.”

To sweeten the end of your meal, a standout dessert is the bombolini — Italian donuts served with Meyer lemon curd and vanilla mascarpone. Other options include a strawberry mascarpone tart, tiramisu, or hazelnut torta with salted caramel gelato to name just a few temptations. tl