Bah, Humbug

'Tis the season to be sad and lonely and eat dull food.

Once upon a time, Scordato's towered on Tucson's fairly empty culinary scene. It rested gently on its laurels for years, while town slowly and steadily gathered strength; a spate of new restaurants came and conquered. Wisely, the Scordato family rode those winds of change, sold its venue and went on to reinvent the wheel elsewhere, most notably with the placement of Danny Scordato at the helm of Vivace, and Joe Scordato at the winsome if misspelled Trattoria Guiseppe.

But the original restaurant has endured, mostly on the merit of its former incarnation. Sold in early 1999 to Evangelo Vassious, the venue is vaulted enough that the restaurant is now called, in a confusing fashion, Evangelo's Scordato's. Apparently it is difficult to let go of those vestiges of glory, even if the laurels aren't your own.

Due to some freak zoning acts over the decades, this is the only dining venue so far up in the Tucson Mountains. This results in a lovely setting for the restaurant, but as the McMansions encroach, you feel like you're dining not so much in the splendor of nature as you are in some fat cat's back yard. Still, the view of the rapidly expanding city lights is impressive. And if you don't want to think about what it signifies in the greater scheme of things, turn to the menu.

Evangelo's Scordato's offers several dining options. In keeping with the menu's self-proclaimed Mediterranean flavor, you can browse a tapas menu or head straight for entrées. Since we had a leisurely evening to spend, we thought we'd begin with some of the tapas (which are also featured on the appetizer list of the entrée menu), and then move onto entrées.

Queso Saganaki Fritos ($7.50) makes for a dramatic opening to an evening. In a gesture toward a classic Greek tradition, a slice of Saganaki cheese is set ablaze tableside. Extinguished with lemon juice, the cheese is ignited just long enough to melt on the inside and crisp up on the outside. Served with wedges of pita bread, this is a rich and potent appetizer.

The stuffed calamari ($8.50) wasn't quite as flashy. A steak of calamari, stuffed with chicken paté, corn, leeks and cashews, was baked, then served in a light saffron sauce. A light, creamy dish, this was a study in delicate textures and flavors.

The Turkish Port Mussels ($6.50) were probably the most flavorful and interesting tapa we encountered. Green lip mussels had been individually wrapped in bacon, then grilled. Served on a skewer in a pool of a spicy honey sauce, the sweet and smoky flavors set these apart as what tapas truly should be: a fully realized, small treasure.

Refreshed and ready to move on, we ordered the Duck à l'Orange ($18.50). It is worth noting that when Evangelo's first opened a year or so ago, this same dish was listed at $32.50. We were initially cheered to see that the current prices were far more reasonable, but when the dish arrived, we wondered if the quality hadn't dropped to meet the price. While the portion of duck was moderate, everything else about the plate was mediocre: Served with rice and a vegetable "medley" (carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, ho hum), nothing about the plate set it apart from being, well, boring.

The Puge ($19.50), our waiter assured us, was a house specialty, lobster, shrimp, scallops and goat cheese with a dill-brandy cream sauce baked in a puff pastry shell. The unlikely combination got the better of our curiosity. What arrived was a typical pastry shell stuffed with a strange combination of a seafood stew; the brandy fought with the dill, which duked it out with the goat cheese, and in the end, nobody won. From the ringside of the plate, the same tired rice and vegetable side dish sat in glum little piles.

Sometimes a meal can take a hard left turn. In this instance, we agreed we should have stopped with the appetizers, and we called for the check. It is possible on occasion to pick two "misses" from an ambitious menu. Since we had enjoyed the initial part of our meal so much, we agreed to return on another evening and give the menu another try.

This time, since our arrival was later in the evening, we decided to pass on dining al fresco. While we missed the view and sitting out in the night, sitting indoors gave a different dining experience. Again, the service was prompt, attentive and courteous, but there was something creepy about being outnumbered by the staff. The flagstone floors, obviously put in to spiff the place up, provided a spooky, hollow echo as the staff paced back to the kitchen or announced the occasional self-conscious guests trying to get to their seats while their footsteps boomed around them. Note to self: If you want a lively crowd, you're going to have to bring your own.

This time we began the meal with the Magic Mushrooms ($7.50). While the mushrooms were capped correctly, stuffed with crabmeat mixture and drizzled in butter, there wasn't enough magic to keep the experience from being a silent and solitary affair.

Trying to cheer ourselves up, we moved on to sample the shrimp paté ($4.95). Oddly, the paté was sweet, in the way sweet butter is sweet, not so that it is cloying, but it was a curious turn on the palate we hadn't been expecting. Nor were we cheered.

This time we waded through the menu and made our own selections sans any direction from the waiter. We settled on the Ahivades ($18.50), which the menu assured us would offer up fresh mussels, clams, shrimp and fish sautéed in a fresh herb cream sauce and tossed with fettuccini. This was exactly what we were served: a large bowl swimming in a briny cream sauce featured fettuccini studded with mussels, clams, shrimp and fish. This wasn't exactly a culinary epiphany, but it was a straightforward plate.

At $24.50, the rack of lamb set some high hopes. The rack was cooked to the requested medium rare. The twice-baked potato and the same tiresome vegetable medley didn't really put a spin on the dish that made it memorable. But neither was there anything wrong with it, per se; it was just ... bland.

We moved on to dessert not out of any sort of euphoria, but more a gloomy resolution to see the meal to its conclusion. The spumoni ($3.50) was your typical tri-colored affair, a bit of almond, a bit of maraschino flavoring, and a spoon. We must have appeared subdued as our waiter suggested we try an additional dessert, the tiramisu ($4.95). As he set it on the table with a flourish, he confided that it was flown in from Chicago, and this was what set it apart as being exceptional. This stopped forks in mid-air. So, we responded politely, you buy this frozen? This stumped our server who cocked his head to one side and said, "Well, I guess they'd have to, then, wouldn't they?" Well yes, Virginia, Chicago is a long way for a fairly routine dessert to be flown in. And, sadly, there was nothing about the tiramisu that warranted such excessive efforts. It was slightly soggy and rather run of the mill.

Perhaps this gesture best sums up Evangelo's. It tries to be something it's not. One feels as if one is dining in a somber mortuary, every forkful being lifted to some kind of yesteryear that is no longer in evidence. What could be spectacular errs on the side of caution and finally loses itself in a sea of Continental cuisine. Perhaps that is the best way to dine at Evangelo's Scordato's, resigned to the fact that it's a lovely place to sit, particularly if you don't mind sitting in the mournful presence of the liminal ghost of Scordato's past. There's no better way to usher in this somber season, particularly if you're up to paying good money to sit by yourself and feel a little sad and lonely.