On Evangelo's

It's fine line between old-world charm and being a bit run down

As you drive the long and winding road that leads to Evangelo's, you might suspect you've gone too far and missed the place, but then on the left side of the road, where Anklam Road and Speedway Boulevard merge, you'll notice a golden glow. Like harbor lights in an inky sea, the lights from Evangelo's reach out into the night, welcoming you, inviting you in.

The site had once been home to one of Tucson's most famous and excellent restaurants, but that was many years back and a few legal issues ago. Some remnants are still visible: a lovely arbor at the entrance, large windows, snow-white paint on the outside, the mission tiled roof. It was with great curiosity we entered the doors.

We were seated by the genial host, and a server was at the table quickly to see if we wanted a drink. Although I hadn't had time to fully read the good-sized wine list, I ordered a glass of Mondavi merlot ($6.50), and John ordered a Ketel One martini ($8.50).

After settling, in we ordered appetizers. John opted for the magic mushrooms ($10.95)--not those kind of "magic" mushrooms--and I went with the escargot ($12.95).

There is an old-world feel here, but we couldn't help but notice how tired and mismatched the place looked. Desert colors and flagstone floors were in the foyer and bar, while institutional green walls and odd red carpet were in the dining room. Dim, dusty sconces hung on the walls, and the chairs looked like something Gramma had in her dining room.

Was this an omen of things to come?

Thankfully, it wasn't. Both the appetizers were delicious. The huge magic mushrooms were generously stuffed with a fluffy crab-meat mixture and baked to a golden brown, and the escargots (also served in mushrooms) were baked in a perfectly balanced garlic butter.

Several other tables had ordered the saganaki, a traditional Greek dish whereby bites of kefalograviera cheese had been pan-fried and then flambéed at the table with a flash of fire and a shout of Opa! Very continental!

Our sweet server brought the entrées--veal Oscar ($31.95) for John, lamb chops ($25.95) for me--to the table just as a large party and several other smaller parties arrived. We were lucky to have avoided the sudden rush of customers.

John's veal Oscar--another old-world item--was a healthy portion of tender veal, slightly overcooked asparagus, sweet crab and hollandaise sauce. All those wonderful flavors melded together into a fine plate of food. The fettuccini Alfredo, which was served on the side, though, was more like reheated buttered noodles and a bit of a disappointment.

My meal consisted of six small but succulent chops judiciously marinated and seasoned with lemon, garlic, olive oil and the right amount of oregano. I passed on the veggies on the side; they were slightly overcooked. The presentation was like something from the past: Everything was placed atop a large leaf of lettuce, which ended up looking a bit wilted. The lettuce was totally unnecessary, and the kitchen might do well to abandon it for a sharper, more modern look.

For dessert, we had the chocolate dream cake ($6.95). Chocolate is always nice, as was this slice, but there was nothing about this chocolate cake to make it stand out.

Evangelo's also has a tapas bar, so we decided to go that way for visit two. We sat in the bar and ordered a drink from our neophyte bartender. John had a Heineken ($4), and I had a glass of Clos du Bois chardonnay ($9).

The tapas menu isn't true tapas in any sense of the word: It is the appetizer menu with a few of the entrées from the main dining room thrown in for good measure.

We ordered shrimp scampi ($14.95), fried calamari partouza ($9.95) clams cazino (their spelling, not mine; $9.95) and shrimp souvlaki ($14.95). The prices were a tad high for appetizers, but the portions were good-sized.

The calamari was served with tzatziki sauce. This sauce is supposed to be yogurt-based (it tasted more like mayo to me) with chopped cukes, garlic, olive oil, vinegar and dill. The calamari did well without it. The rings were crispy, tender and light. The shrimp souvlaki could've used more char, but then it would've run the risk of being overcooked. They were again served atop a lettuce leaf and were only OK, at best. The scampi fared much better. The shrimp were tender, and the garlic butter was delicious. I liked the clams the best. There were eight tiny, tiny clams, chopped and tossed with tomato juice, romano cheese and topped with a bit of bacon. They were then baked in their shells to a golden brown.

While we ate, the host played music on a bouzouki (at least that's what I think it is called). It was a quaint and charming touch. For dessert we had the house baklava ($6.50). It was served warm and drizzled with even more honey. Not necessarily the best I've had, but I enjoyed it.

The old-world feel to Evangelo's works both in its favor and against it. The dining room could use a serious facelift; a coat of off-white paint, a new rug and some track lighting would work wonders. The presentation might fare better by dumping the lettuce leaves and a offering little more attention to the sides. I believe the owners and staff are sincere in their efforts, but Evangelo's falls short of being all it could be, and I can't recommend it.