Welcome dear readers, to our third installment of remembering our favorite, but now closed, Tucson restaurants.
This time, we're doing Italian.
So many places have closed over the years, and information about them has faded into the sunset. But the children of two places that helped define modern Italian dining in Tucson carry on their family traditions, and were more than happy to share their memories.
4405 W. Speedway Blvd.
Opened Nov. 9, 1972
Closed: This is complicated ... around 1999
Part of the charm of dining at Scordato's, which was located where Anklam Road and Speedway Boulevard merge, was the drive itself. Back then, the road was narrow, dark and winding, with few signs of civilization; the only illumination came from your car's headlights. You drove and drove, and just when you thought that perhaps you'd missed it, a beautiful building appeared, bathed in golden light.
James Scordato Sr. had brought his family (wife, Ann, daughter, Patricia, and sons, Jim Jr., Joe and Daniel) to Arizona from New Jersey. They lived in Duncan for a time, and then moved to Tucson, where Joe ran a highly successful catering truck. Opening a full-service restaurant was the next logical step.
The family constructed much of the building themselves—and people thought they were crazy for building so far out in the desert. Jim Sr. ran the place like he did back in Jersey, which meant that everybody worked hard—and worked fast. He demanded only the best from everyone, including ingredients.
"Back then, when we started, everybody used frozen, proportioned patties (of veal)," said Joe Scordato at his northwest-side Guiseppe's. "We started bringing in whole hindquarters. We butchered our own meat."
In a separate interview, his younger brother, Danny, owner of Vivace and Vivace Pizzeria at St Philip's Plaza, said: "We were the first to have a really large wine list (about 160 wines at opening). No one was really doing that. The Tack Room had high-end wines, but we brought wines for the 'common' people."
The food menu was expansive as well, and offered unique touches, such as tuxedoed servers doing tableside preparations of Caesar salad and fettuccini Alfredo.
"It was high-end Italian. It was the first upscale Italian restaurant," Danny said.
Joe and his older brother manned the kitchen, while Danny, barely 18, worked the front of the house to much acclaim. Patricia, a trained classical musician, entertained guests on the piano in the dining room.
"We made a great team, the family working together. It became quite an icon," Joe said.
Danny recalled: "I remember the way we ran it. We really, really tried to please all of our customers."
One of my fondest memories is a dinner at Scordato's way back when by daughter was a baby. (She's now 32.) I had the osso buco, and because it was so wonderful, it still serves as my benchmark for any version of the dish.
Jon Shumaker, a regular Tucson Weekly contributor, has fond memories as well.
"I was in college, poor as hell (a perennial diet of mac-and-cheese and ramen), and my roommate's parents took pity on us and treated us to dinner at Scordato's. I remember it was dark, expensive, and for a poor college kid, a real treat, hugely appreciated."
Both Joe and Danny credit their pop with teaching them the value of hard work and what it takes to make the customer happy. The success of their own restaurants is testament to that.
Sadly, after Joe Sr. left the restaurant to the kids, family issues resulted in Joe, Patricia and Danny leaving, and the eventual closure of the flagship restaurant. Fortunately, we can still enjoy the spirit of the old Scordato's at Guiseppe's and both Vivace restaurants.
3535 E. Fort Lowell Road
DaVinci's was one of my dad's favorite places—and that's saying a lot. My dad loved to eat and set the bar pretty high when it came to Italian food.
DaVinci's was owned and operated by Cosmo Ali, who'd come to Tucson from Italy via Montreal. His first restaurant in Tucson was a university-area pizza joint called Paesano's that he owned with his brother Damiano.
Eventually, each opened their own restaurant: Damiano opened Damiano's; Cosmo opened DaVinci's.
Pina Colosimo, Cosmo's daughter and the owner of Trattoria Pina with her husband, Fedele, said, "My parents started with eight tables."
Cosmo cooked, and Anna, his wife, worked the front (and the back as needed).
As DaVinci's popularity grew, so did the building itself, with the Alis adding a room here a room there. Soon, DaVinci's was an elegant multi-roomed dining Mecca. The various rooms were decked out with statuary, columns, lots of green plants, and murals of chariots, Venice and other scenes of Italy.
People came for the scoglio, a mix of seafood and seasonings cooked in foil. On Thursday nights, folks would flock in for the chicken Toscanini: chicken breast in a luscious white lemon cream sauce with mushrooms and artichokes, served over tortellini.
And to finish? Cosmo's tiramisu—which, by the way, he still makes for Trattoria Pina. (He makes the other desserts, as well as the gnocchi.)
"He stops by everyday just to check up on us," Pina explained, "but now he does it on his own time." He's 74 years old.
Pina and her sister, Loreta (who once owned Cibaria Cucina in Oro Valley), worked in the restaurant as well. Pina notes that her dad taught them the value of hard work and to always be positive. He didn't necessarily want them to go into the business; he valued a college education. Both daughters got their degrees, but when they wanted to open their own places, he offered his full support.
At DaVinci's, Pina worked the front. "My sister hung out in the kitchen," said Pina, "It was always so busy. By the end of the night, you were exhausted, but it was so much fun!"
The restaurant closed in 2004. Cosmo had a stroke; the folks who bought it acquired the name as well, so for a while, DaVinci's wasn't really DaVinci's anymore. Since then, the building has gone through numerous iterations.
Pina said that she and the rest of the family still find it hard to drive by. "It was his passion," she said of her dad and the old restaurant. "Our customers were our friends."
ther late, lamented restaurants worth mentioning:
• Daniel's, Scordato's on Broadway and Trattoria Guiseppe—all from the family Scordato. Need we say more?
• Vince's: Known as much for its neon sign as for the food. On one side was a smiling man who tossed a pizza in the air; on the other side was a fork that continuously swirled spaghetti. This place on Speedway Boulevard was owned by Vince Zagona, brother/uncle to the folks who own Caruso's. He and his wife passed it on to their daughter. It closed in 1995; recently, the property was purchased by a local automotive company and will soon be an auto-parts store.
• Corleone's: This place made several moves. (It was first located near the university on East Mabel Street, and then headed to the eastside.) It morphed into Mona Lisa Corleone Sicilian Restaurant under new owners who once owned Mona Lisa Bakery.
Leopoldo's: This place had two locations (although we don't know if they were owned by the same people)—one on Drachman Street, and the other on Sixth Street across from the university. The latter site had killer eggplant Parmesan sandwiches.
• Roma Caffe: A relatively new closure after 27 years on the northwest side. This was red-sauce heaven!
• Gavi: Another recent closure. At least we can still enjoy Piazza Gavi.
• Frankie's Pizza: A very popular spot on Speedway near Alvernon Way. Friends of mine were such regulars that when they ordered a pizza, the delivery guy would pick up a case of beer for them as well. That friend also notes, "I don't know whatever happened to Frankie's, but I still remember the phone number."