Vittles 'n' Vibe

It's easy to see why Zona 78 is becoming one of Tucson's most popular restaurants

Zona 78 has been around for some time now (about 2 1/2 years), and the hip watering hole has developed quite a following--for good reason. The food--what might be described as American Italian--is prepared with care and is well-executed. The vibe is just right: casual, friendly and a little jazzy. And the location is a winner, as it's just minutes from shopping, businesses and the foothills. This all adds up to good fun and good food.

We popped in for a Saturday lunch. As you enter, the bar is on the left; the dining room is on the right. The dividing line is the stone oven, where the pizzas, breads and other items are cooked. We headed for a booth in the dining room, where the pizza-red walls were decorated with bright artwork.

The place wasn't very crowded, but there was still a nice buzz to the place. It was cool and not too sunny (even though it was 100 degrees-plus outside), and the music was a mix of oldies and newbies.

Our server greeted us, explained the specials and gave us space to read the menu. For such a compact place, Zona has a decent wine menu, with most available by the glass. There's even a list of owner-recommended wines. I ordered the daily special, a Geyser Peak sauvignon blanc ($6.75). John had a Dos Equis ($3.50). We also ordered the antipasto plate for two ($9).

Zona's antipasto plate is definitely big enough for two people. The centerpiece was a pile of lightly dressed greens sprinkled with tiny chunks of parmesan. The rest of the bowl was loaded with salami, Prosciutto di Parma, a fistful of olives, two kinds of red peppers (sweet and roasted), artichoke hearts, brie and fontina cheeses, grilled zucchini slices and a hunk of roasted fennel. Crusty ciabatta is served on the side. Everything was wonderful--but that fennel was an especially smart and delicious touch.

For his entrée, John ordered the roast turkey and bacon panino ($8.25), one of several sandwiches on the menu. I went with a pasta dish, cavatelli pomodori ($8).

John's sandwich could've been called an Italian club sandwich. Lightly grilled, house-made bread was stuffed with turkey, bacon, fontina cheese, roasted red peppers and a smear of honey Dijon mustard. It was served with a perfectly seasoned pasta salad. The smoky saltiness of the bacon contrasted with the sweet peppers and mustard. This was a clever twist on an old standby, and big enough to take home for leftovers.

My pasta was also very good. The sauce was slightly thick and sang of basil and garlic. It's not quite what mama used to make, but it was darn close--and I had leftovers, too!

For dessert, we needed something cool and light, so panna cotta ($5) was the ideal choice. Served in a martini glass, the fruit-swirled gelatin was lighter than air and very refreshing.

Our dinner visit came in the middle of the week, and we wanted some of Zona's well-known pizzas. The place was so packed, we had to wait for a table. I ordered a glass of Masi campofiorin ($8.50), and John had a glass of Moretti beer ($4). Watching the crowd in the bar--where we ended up eating--we noticed singles mingling, couples chatting, good-looking plates of food sailing by and a smiling, efficient staff that kept the drinks flowing. Everyone seemed to be having a great time.

We skipped starters and went right to the pizza. John ordered the pizza boy ($9). I went with a build-your-own pizza, but kept it simple: I ordered a pie with the basic red sauce and mozzarella, with some fresh mozzarella ($7.25 plus 50 cents for the extra topping) for good measure.

In a reasonable amount of time, our pizzas arrived. The crispy thin-crust pies were piping hot and emitting wonderful aromas of cheeses and spices. John's pizza was topped with slices of pepperoni, salami, house mozzarella and basil--a classic pizza if there ever was one. I chowed down on my pizza. Both were crispy, gooey and delicious. Pizza is one of those foods that I would have for my last meal, and Zona's version would be most welcome when the time came.

The service was tops. Our server was totally professional and genuinely friendly. He even came back to the table to check if he had gotten the order right before he sent it to the kitchen! That is the mark of a well-trained, happy server and a well-run restaurant.

Come dessert time, I resisted the urge for chocolate and went with another item straight from the ovens. Called the stone-fired apple tart ($5), this dessert begins with a puff pastry fired in the oven. A baked Willcox apple is nestled in the middle. All of it is topped with some mascarpone cheese, vanilla gelato and a healthy drizzle of an apple/caramel reduction. Call it Mom's apple pie for the 21st century. The apple was hot; the gelato was cold. The pastry was flaky; the cheese was creamy. Every bite was a wonder

The only thing missing from Zona's menu is a hamburger. It's hard to believe any restaurant of this caliber doesn't make one, but a new chef recently came on board, so perhaps he'll give it a whirl. Regardless, I am sure this cool little joint will continue to draw a crowd. Whether you're looking for a great pizza spot for the family, a joint to gather at with your pals after work or place for a casual date, Zona 78 is a keeper.