Favorite

Half Baked 

Mona Lisa's bread and desserts outweigh an inconsistent but promising menu.

Perhaps it is solipsistic thinking or mere self-indulgence, but it is nice to believe that some of us are brought into this world to meet a certain calling. The Mona Lisa was born to smile enigmatically, for centuries taunting us with her mysterious, self-satisfied grin as certainly as the Puccia family was placed on this earth to bake bread worth breaking. There is no denying the magic touch to leaven bread and make crust sing runs deep in the Puccia family's gene pool.

Tony Puccia's mother and father, third-generation bakers, came from families who ran rival bakeries in Italy. As fate and yeast would have it, they met, married and moved to the New World to open up their own bakeries in New York City.

Many successful years later, the Puccias relocated to Tucson. Although once a dance studio, the family's airy Broadway space with its wooden floors brings to mind neighborhood bakeries from another time. And the yeasty aromatic smell that envelops you once you enter the restaurant confirms this fact. The magic of a bakery is in the air, a tumble of fresh loaves of fragrant, crusty breads and an enormous glass case filled with all sorts of Italian cookies and pastries: wedding cookies, Rum Baba, cannoli, rum balls and chocolate strawberries, anisette.

Clearly, passion for doing things right runs deep in this operation. For the most part, three generations of the Puccia family help run the business, and any one of them is happy to expound on what makes a particular recipe special, why their mozzarella must be tried, why you must sit down and try the Rum Baba right now. Perhaps this is a particular genetic peculiarity, but this type of passion surely led the Puccia family to its decades of success in New York before they migrated to Tucson. And it certainly attests to why they would have dismantled the oven they used for so many years and brought it brick by brick to Tucson ... a single-minded passion.

It takes a great deal of ingenuity and fortitude to relocate a thriving business to a brand new city, yet the Puccia family is confident that once people taste their wares, they will be back. As a wholesaler, Tony Puccia is slowly bringing excellent breads to Tucson not only through his front door, but by selling to local restaurants as well. While the bakery and deli have been in operation for almost year, this past July saw the recent addition of a full dining menu.

As Tucson can always use another viable and authentic Italian restaurant, let's hope the bakery's single-minded attention and drive will catch on with the restaurant menu as well. At the moment, the menu is a satisfying but slightly odd glimpse into a family's fierce and private code that feels as if it is based in some nostalgic tradition.

On a recent visit, we began with several appetizers. We tried the Crochette di patate e Melenzane Ripiene ($10.95), which the menu promised to be Italian parmesan, ham and mozzarella potato croquettes with half of a "deliciously stuffed eggplant." We were served two potatoes that had been rolled in cracker crumbs and crisped. They were cakey inside, dry and without a shred of cheese or ham. When we asked our waiter if this had been prepared properly he looked a little startled, but assured us that the menu was being changed and that now the potato croquettes were just potato. The stuffed eggplant was a mound of a seafood mixture and breadcrumbs. The entire plate was dry and would have benefited from some kind of dipping sauce, perhaps a side of marinara. This was a disappointing way to begin a meal.

This disorienting sense of departure from menu descriptions carried through with other items. The calamari ($7.95), "deep fried with a side of marinara sauce," was not deep fried at all. It had been swiftly pan sautéed "naked" (as one diner pronounced it). This was a far more delightful way to eat calamari, and it certainly didn't bother any calamari enthusiasts at the table. Still, if one had been wedded to the notion of deep-fried calamari, this would have been a bit puzzling.

The Spinaci con Aceto Balsamico ($6.95) and Lobster Bisque ($10.95) were both perfectly acceptable. A bed of fresh spinach was bathed in a hot balsamic vinegar-bacon dressing. The Lobster Bisque, intensely pink and flecked with seafood, was finished with a heavy cream. This was a very rich soup that left one feeling like a kitten drowned in a sea of milk.

Entrées proved to be more stable. The Lasagna di Manzo ($11.95) is a curious find. A "beef ragu" (which looked like a pulled beef to us) was layered with lasagna noodles, then swaddled in a rich cheesy cream sauce. While this might be a traditional dish, I saw two different tables order it, then watched as baffled diners called the waiter over for further explanation. Be warned this isn't a marinara affair.

Melenzone alla Parmigiana ($11.95) is a refreshing version of eggplant parmesan. Someone in the kitchen understands and loves eggplant, and the cutlets were barely breaded, lightly fried then sauced. It was a pleasure to find this dish not entombed in heavy cheese, and the side of linguine marked this a filling plate.

Linguini and Clams ($17.95) and Seafood Pasta with Roasted Garlic Oil ($16.95) are both hearty dishes. Whoever is in the kitchen isn't shy with garlic, and this is always appreciated. Both plates were generously portioned with both seafood and pasta. These are straightforward, rustic bowls of food meant to be hearty for the appetite and light on pretension.

Desserts were a lovely, leisurely event. Our waiter encouraged us to visit the dessert case and select the items we wanted to sample. A plate of pastries, éclairs, cream puffs, hand-dipped fruits and rum balls was assembled and delivered with some steaming hot coffee. It is true, the Puccia family understands pastry and dessert. The plate was lovingly assembled and there wasn't a clinker in the lot.

If, as the menu claims, "Now you know why she smiles," it must be because Mona Lisa elbowed her way to the front of the line at the pastry counter. If you visit Mona Lisa, you'll find yourself smiling at the assortment of delicacies and great care that goes into the preparation of baked goods. The restaurant will, one hopes, soon meet the same exacting and passionate standards the Puccia family imparts in every other part of their establishment.

Then we'll all be smiling. And no doubt waiting in the line at the door.

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