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LaFerlita's Pizza Café: great style and idea; mediocre execution

LaFerlita's Pizza Café is a place I truly want to like. It has a fantastic location and a comfortable, yet elegant, look. The menu offers some potentially tasty treats at competitive prices, and it seems that the owner, Robert LaFerlita, is clearly putting his all into the place; he came around to check on the tables during both of our visits.

Thus, it pains me to say: LaFerlita's needs some definite improvement. On our visits, the kitchen was having serious problems getting food temperatures right, and as a result, we experienced two less-than-stellar meals.

Garrett and I first visited LaFerlita's on a recent weekday evening. It was a gorgeous Tucson fall night, and LaFerlita's outdoor patio--complete with a wonderful fireplace--was calling my name. Instead, we sat inside, so we could get a feel for the restaurant's décor. The feel we got was comforting: It's an upscale bistro, immaculately clean, with pictures of New York and what appears to be a family on one wall. Four flat-screen TVs, brick walls, a nice bar and the visible wood-fire pizza oven all add to the vibe. It may be one of the best decorated little restaurants in town.

The menu features a half-dozen appetizers, plus lentil and minestrone soups, and a half-dozen salads. For lunch, sandwiches and pizza are the prime attractions; for dinner, pastas and three entrées (baked halibut Florentine, $17; chicken parmigiana, $16; and a daily "Neopolitan Specialty") replace the sandwiches. There's also an admirable wine list.

For a starter, Garrett and I picked the lump crab and spinach bake ($10.25); for the main course, we both had a hankering for pizza. Garrett got the medium chicken pesto ($12; large $16), while I went with a medium LaFerlita's (sopprasata, sausage, onions, bell peppers and mozzarella, $12, large $16), without the peppers and with extra sauce.

We chatted as we waited for the appetizer. It turns out we did quite a bit of chatting, as it took a while for it to show up at our table. The server apologized for the delay when delivering the impressive-looking dish. They earned points for presentation--the triangular, thin bread slices were arranged around the dish, standing up, so it looked like a bunch of stalagmites.

But they'd soon lose those points: The dish was lukewarm. It appeared to be baked through, so I have to assume it sat around for a while--as we waited for it. We informed the server, and she apologized, promptly taking the dish back to the kitchen. A minute or two later, she asked us, again apologizing, if it was OK that our pizzas would be out before the new crab and spinach bake. We said yes.

The pizzas were both pretty good. While I can't say they reminded us of true New York pizza, they were nonetheless tasty. Garrett enjoyed his pie, with a blend of small chicken pieces, basil pesto, sun-dried tomatoes and smoked mozzarella. My pizza was just how I wanted it, with extra sauce. The sauce itself was only OK--it could have used some more spiciness--but the pie was good enough that I ate the whole thing, even though I probably shouldn't have.

The new crab and spinach bake was delivered with the cheese on top still bubbling--obviously, a good sign. It was an enjoyable dish, with large quantities of Dungeness crab and artichoke hearts among the cheese and spinach. The menu said the dish also included "a splash of Anisette liquor." We could not taste it, but it wasn't missed.

Our second visit came on a recent Saturday afternoon. All the TVs were tuned to college football, and the median age of customers in the half-full restaurant was 25, tops. Garrett and I split an order of the Tuscan crab cakes ($10.50). I ordered a cup of minestrone ($2.75) and a medium pizza with sausage, black olives and extra sauce ($11.70), while Garrett picked the meatball parmesan sandwich ($8).

In some ways, this visit mirrored our first. It took longer than expected to get the soup and crab cakes, and when the soup arrived, it was--guess what?--lukewarm, approaching cool. I didn't have the energy to send it back, so I ate it. Dominated by macaroni, the soup was only OK. On the plus side, the crab cakes were sufficiently warm and tasty. With peppers, onions and carrots, these crab cakes were more vegetable-inclusive than normal, but the blend worked. The remoulade sauce was full of capers, and it had a tartar-sauce-like taste.

Soon after we finished our appetizers, our server brought the main courses. Garrett liked the sandwich, although he had two complaints: It was a bit dry, despite the presence of some marinara sauce and mozzarella (he asked for more marinara on the side, which helped); and the meatballs themselves were a bit bland. Like the pizza sauce, the meatballs could use some more oomph. The accompanying macaroni salad and potato chips were both fine.

My pizza was fine, although there weren't very many black olives at all. This bothered me; seeing as I'd paid $1.50 for the smattering of olives, I felt slightly screwed.

We decided to give dessert a shot. As we pondered the choices, a young man from the kitchen came around, flipping and spinning some pizza dough. He was quite talented (one drop aside), and it added a nice touch to the meal.

We picked the New York cheesecake ($5.50) and the brick-oven brownie. After a bit of a wait, the desserts arrived, looking good. Both were presented beautifully, artistically drizzled with sauces. I bit into the cheesecake, which was delectable, while Garrett dug into the brownie.

Check that: He tried to dig in--but the brownie was impervious to his fork. The brick-oven brownie was, well, like a brick. We showed the server, and she apologized, taking it off the bill and putting in a hurry-up order for a second one to take home with us. We stole a bite as we paid the bill, just before we left. It tasted OK, although it had an oddly chalky texture. (It was better at home after 45 seconds in the microwave.)

So, what is there to say about LaFerlita's Pizza Café? It's got a great location and a wonderful look--but on our visits, the kitchen did not have it together at all. Therefore, I can't recommend the restaurant--no matter how much I want to like LaFerlita's.

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