What is great about Italian food—I mean really great Italian food—is its simplicity: A little tomato, a little olive oil, a little garlic, a little oregano, a little pasta and boom, you've got a fantastic meal.
What makes exceptional Italian food, though, is love.
If you've ever had the good fortune to be invited to dinner at the home of an Italian-American family, you know what I'm talking about. It's momma's-gonna'-pinch-your-cheek-and-tell-you, "Eat more - what, you don't like my food?" good.
When it comes to Italian restaurants, it's not that they have to make you believe you're part of the family. But I'll take a simple Italian place where they love their marinara so much that they simmer it for hours and feed the souls of their guests over an upscale place with fancy plate presentations any time.
Ascolese's Italian Restaurant, in the Samaniego House by the Tucson Convention Center, provided my girlfriend, her father and me that exceptional Italian experience for Father's Day last night.
When Rosie and I arrived for our 7:15 reservation, we found her dad waiting for us in the bar, savoring a glass of red and engaged in conversation with Bella, the bartender from Long Island (How much more Italian can you get?).
Aside from another lone diner, we were the only ones in the place. When Rosie had made the reservation earlier in the day, she was told they were thinking about closing earlier than their 8 p.m. listed time, and I started thinking we were in for the same experience described in earlier reviews of Ascolese's (including the Tucson Weekly's): great food, lousy service. I had actually suggested Italian alternatives to avoid a Father's Day dinner disaster, but Rosie stuck to her guns, saying she had a good feeling about this place.
Bella warmly welcomed us, and we knew we were in for a treat. The other diner left shortly after we were seated, but we never felt rushed by the attentive staff. It was our server's first night working alone (a common theme in previous reviews), but she called for back-up when asked for recommendations and provided just enough attention to ensure the meal was progressing well while not interrupting the flow of conversation. Bella even stopped by a couple of times to make sure she was doing a good job.
I don't need to cover the ground of old reviews, other than to say the marinara is simply the best. Absolutely the best in Tucson, and one of the best I've tasted anywhere. Rosie and I chose appetizers and meals to maximize our marinara exposure, but her dad's bacon-wrapped scallops were also quite tasty.
HIs entree was unique, a Long Island specialty suggested by Bella: clams and linguine in a vodka sauce. Even Executive Chef Scott Berry, who dropped by our table to make sure our meals were satisfactory and give us 10 percent discount cards, said it was the first time he'd ever made that combination. The towering pile of clam shells Rosie's dad had stacked next to the empty plate was testament to its success.
As we polished off a tiramisu, cannoli and Italian ice cream to the crooning of Frank Sinatra in the background, we pronounced the evening a memorable Father's Day meal and Ascolese's our new favorite Italian restaurant.