Pina Collida

Is The Sun Setting On Trattoria Pina?

THOSE OF YOU who can remember Tucson all the way back to 1976 can recall how very slender the restaurant scene was here in the Baked Apple. Yet even then, Cosmo Ali opened up Da Vinci's, one of Tucson's most popular Italian restaurants, and has kept the doors open ever since. Along the way, he has opened a couple of sister restaurants, most notably Trattoria Pina, named for his daughter, Pina Cosmo-Ali, the current general manger.

In 1996, Trattoria Pina opened to rave reviews. Tucked up in the foothills, this venue was snappily attired with its exposed metal girders and vaulted glass walls. Its corner on Swan and Sunrise commands an unobstructed view of the Catalina Mountains. Wisely, the architect made the vaulted northern wall of solid glass, so that dining in the daytime is breathtaking. At sunset, the glowing gold mountains certainly eclipse dining partners, wine and food alike.

But then the sun sets.

On a recent chilly night, we visited Trattoria Pina to see how the kitchen was faring in the face of all the encroaching competition. The menu is far reaching and offers up plenty of choices.

We opted to begin with the Polenta di Casa ($7.25), a creamy round of polenta in a bland Gorgonzola cream sauce. It was marred further by vegetables that had not been grilled properly: The eggplant was still slightly raw and the mushrooms squeaky. While we appreciated the fact that the vegetables had not been scorched or overly done, someone in the kitchen needs a bit more practice.

The Insalata Paglio ($7.25) was a healthy mound of fresh spinach, tossed generously with bacon, goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes. The goat cheese, however, was not like any we'd had before; it tasted far more like slivers of a hardened sheep's milk cheese. Not that we minded the exchange, but we would probably have avoided this particular combination of ingredients. When we asked our server what type of cheese was in the dish, we caused a game of telephone where each employee asked another and in the end no one had the faintest clue.

We resolved not to ask any more questions. But neither could we implicitly trust the menu. Thus began the very perilous game of Let's Guess What's Good To Eat Tonight.

The menu was erratic. Some dishes emerged as simple and plain and true in the way that Italian food should be, featuring quality ingredients, assertive flavors and untortured combinations. But what was bad, was awful.

First, let us bask in what worked at Trattoria Pina. Probably the best dish we had was the Polenta alla Griglia ($11.95). A lovely, festive plate that celebrates simple flavors, this would make a hearty entrée for one, or an excellent appetizer to be shared by two. An ample serving of polenta, draped with links of in-house Italian sausage, half a grilled chicken breast, roasted red and yellow bell peppers, onions and two heads of roasted garlic, this platter packed a punch. The bright colors and flavors all worked well together. The sweet red and yellow bell peppers and onions provided a tart counterpoint to the grilled chicken or sausage. This plate kept the table happy.

A house specialty of the evening, Wood-Fired Lasagna ($12.95), seemed like a fairly safe bet and a warming idea on a cold November evening. Since the dish is so basic, we gambled that it would be hard to go wrong. The slab of lasagna was warmed through and through, and fairly smothered in cheese. Since lasagna has room for so much possibility, it was slightly disappointing to find a fairly benign meat sauce and little else between the noodles, but the dish had been handled correctly and was certainly warming.

Alas, the other pasta dishes that we tried were not so cheering. The Piazza San Marco ($18.95) advertised penne pasta tossed with calamari, scallops, bay shrimp and clams in a white wine cream sauce. What arrived was a swamp of unrecognizable items. Served in an oversized bowl, the pasta was over-cooked and the predominant flavor of the dish was a bitter, boiled clam. We found no calamari, a smattering of itty-bitty frozen shrimp, and two frozen scallops. Even the sauce couldn't save this dish; it was a wildly lemon cream sauce that had broken, then been re-heated in an attempt to save it. An inordinate amount of parsley tried to cover up the shame, but no one need to have gone to the bother. I don't recommend this dish, especially at the price.

An Italian restaurant should pride itself on its pasta dishes, and we were dismayed to find the Tortellini Verona ($13.95) to be a stiff and chewy affair. The tortellini tasted frozen; the cheese filling had meshed so thoroughly with the dough that the two were indistinguishable. Perhaps it was simply in the preparation of the dish or the tortellini had started to get old, but they were neither fragrant nor tender, and the dish, though plated in a lovely fashion, fell apart on the tongue.

The Gnocchi ($12.95) were equally disappointing. Served all'arrabiata (in a spicy marinara cream sauce) or al pesto (in a basil sauce), the gnocchi were dense and extremely heavy. While gnocchi should be featherlight, these were so chewy and tasteless that even the sauces couldn't buoy the doughy texture.

On a subsequent lunch visit, we found the lighter fare to be a safe bet. The Muffolatta ($5.95) is an enormous sandwich that would easily fill two. Served on a hearty wedge of toasted Italian bread, it is stuffed with Italian cold cuts, black olive tapenade and mozzarella. Grilled until crisp, this big boy almost guarantees leftovers.

On a lighter note, the Panino Santa Teresa ($5.95) features grilled eggplant, red roasted peppers, roasted zucchini, fresh mozzarella and herbed cream cheese. This might be a better sandwich without the cream cheese, but the vegetables were all grilled correctly and bathed in olive oil. The lighter flavors and variety of vegetables make this a delicate and savory offering.

The wood-fired pizzas also make a filling lunch selection. The Calabrese ($6.75) featured spicy sausage, spinach, ricotta, mozzarella and red onions. Someone with an eye to the perfect pie tossed this pizza. The balance of ingredients, right down to overlapping rings of smoked onion, made every bite worthwhile.

Dessert offerings are fairly routine. The ubiquitous Death by Chocolate Cake made its appearance, followed by an amaretto cake. We sampled two in-house specialties, The Pope's Pillow and Bidonata ($4.50). Neither was particularly impressive. The Pope's Pillow is a towering puff pastry, slathered in frozen strawberries and pastry cream, and piped in pillows of whipped cream. Light, yes, but not memorable. The Bidonata, another house specialty, was an ungodly arrangement of ladyfingers stuffed with pastry cream, dipped in chocolate, then mounded with canned whipped cream. When the waiter brought the tray by we all burst out laughing, including the server. Mirth is a very good thing, but one might want to just look and laugh, and not indulge.

Slowly, slowly, Tucson is gathering some fine Italian venues. While Trattoria Pina comes from a well-established family business, perhaps the time has come to catch up to the more cutting-edge restaurants in town. Certainly Trattoria Pina has found itself an excellent location and setting. Now if it could just bring the rest of the business up to speed. After all, it would be sad if people could only say that the best reason to visit was for the splendid view.

Trattoria Pina. 5541 N. Swan Road. 577-6992. Open for lunch Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner Monday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m. Full bar. Am Ex, Visa, MC, No Checks. Menu items: $5.95-$18.95. Reservations recommended for six or more.