As far as restaurants go, however, the far eastside is lacking. But at least eastsiders have one fine Italian restaurant nestled in Broadway Boulevard and Houghton Road's Montesa Plaza. As a matter of fact, if a recent visit is any true indication, it's one of Tucson's most underrated Italian eateries.
I visited Verona Italian Restaurant on a recent Saturday evening with Hugh Dougherty. Much to my surprise, we had a wait on our hands. The restaurant is fairly small--about a dozen tables fit in the main room (along with a small bar just inside the entrance), and there's a similarly sized, tent-covered outdoor area. It turns out that on this night, a private party was monopolizing the outdoor seating. No problem; we just stood outside and chatted in the gorgeous fall weather until our table was ready.
We were seated, with the hostess apologizing profusely for our wait, and we got our first look at the menu, which is huge--more than four dozen entrees are offered, along with a handful of appetizers, several soups and salads, and four desserts. Hugh and I quickly decided on the stuffed mushrooms ($6.95) and the crostini (toasted bread with sliced tomatoes, melted mozzarella and spices, $6.95), and then we started on the daunting task of deciding on our main courses.
As I pondered the menu, I looked around the restaurant. The décor is uncomplicated, with framed art depicting flowers hanging on the walls. A wine case sits in one corner. Hugh and I were among the youngest people in the restaurant; most of the customers on this night were probably drawing Social Security. Taped piano music played in the background, and the occasional cheer would come from the party on the patio. Verona's atmosphere is simple, yet comfortable.
Our appetizers were delivered before we were given the chance to order our entrées. Apparently, size matters at Verona: The appetizers, like the menu, were huge. Four gargantuan stuffed mushrooms and five slices of the crostini were there for us to devour, and that we did. The crostini was good--lots of garlic and fresh tomatoes (which are getting harder to find in Tucson as winter approaches). The mushrooms were excellent, with the stuffing (made up of bread crumbs, romano cheese, onions and garlic) actually more abundant than the mushrooms themselves. These are not your standard stuffed mushrooms; they're better.
The appetizers were gone, and our waiter still hadn't taken our entrée order. Our server, while polite and competent, seemed overworked, as did the rest of the servers; perhaps someone had called in sick, or perhaps the outdoor party was taxing the restaurant's resources. In any case, the service issues were minor, and when our server finally did take our orders, I requested the veal Florentine ($16.95), and Hugh ordered the pollo picatta ($11.95).
The entrées come with either minestrone soup or house salad; I got the soup, while Hugh got the salad with homemade Italian dressing. The cup of soup was loaded with fresh vegetables, and it tasted fine, although it was slightly bland; it could have used a bit more tomato flavor and seasoning. Hugh's salad had similar pluses and minuses--the romaine lettuce, cucumbers and tomato were all fresh, but the dressing was startlingly tasteless. It seemed like somebody forgot to shake the container before pouring the dressing.
However, the taste issues with the soup and salad were quickly forgotten when our entrées arrived.
My veal, sautéed in white wine and baked with spinach and a Parmesan cream sauce, was amazing. This was the best veal dish I've ever had--the cheese, the spinach, the seasonings (dominated by fresh garlic) and the tenderloin blended delightfully. The accompanying parmigiana potatoes--sliced potatoes baked with a coating of cheese--were a bit dry, but tasty.
Hugh, meanwhile, was equally impressed with his chicken picatta, featuring lemon butter, white wine, capers, artichoke hearts and mushrooms. The lemon and the capers gave the dish an almost mustard-like bite, and the chicken breast was tender and juicy. Hugh's side dish, linguine with marinara, was OK--the marinara was delicious with lots of garlic, but the pasta was starchy and clumped together. The portions of the entrées were substantial; Hugh and I both got to-go containers.
After the plates were cleared, our server asked if we wanted dessert, and we said yes, even though we were both stuffed. I ordered the dolce cake ($4), while Hugh got the dessert of the day, the homemade Napoleon ($5).
We were glad we got dessert. My cake was moist, sweet and divine; the chocolate frosting, the vanilla custard and the sprinkling of sweet vermouth overshadowed the yellow cake, and I could hardly put my fork down between bites.
Hugh's Napoleon, amazingly, was even better. I had a few bites, and I don't know if I've ever tasted a dessert in my life that was that rich. The pastry merely served as a platform for the custard and whipped cream that oozed out the sides. Hugh couldn't eat it all, and was clearly disappointed that a quarter of the square dessert would have to go to waste.
Our experience at Verona was wonderful, and all the minor weaknesses in the meals--the harried servers, the dry potatoes, the starchy linguine, the apparently unshaken dressing--are easy fixes.
Should these be fixed, then the eastside may find itself with one of the best Italian restaurants in town.