Little Things

Angelina's offers a terrific tapas-based culinary experience, but a lack of attention to detail hurts

Tapas started out as Spanish bar snacks, small portions of all sorts of things--olives and cheese, sautéed potatoes, deep-fried squid, or whatever Spaniards felt like nibbling on to hold themselves together until their full late-night dinner.

Variety is key to the tapas experience. Angelina's Ristorante in Oro Valley has seized on the idea of variety and taken it to extremes--not just in the menu, but in its very identity. Angelina's primary purpose seems to be sit-down tapas meals, but it's also a martini lounge (more than 60 concoctions, plus the usual cocktail, beer and wine options), a pizza palace (about 60 varieties) and a sports bar. Its concept is the embodiment of those extravagant dishes you find at high-end restaurants that mingle all sorts of flavors you wouldn't expect to be compatible (and sometimes aren't).

Angelina's would offer a more satisfying dining experience if it didn't try to be so many different things, and I would advise the owners to ditch the sports-bar element. First, metropolitan Tucson hardly needs another sports bar, whereas it does have a slowly closing tapas gap. And that huge, annoying flat-screen sports TV flickering on a wall that manages to be in everyone's line of sight spoils the otherwise elegant atmosphere. The dining room's reliance on purple and crimson paint and draperies seems more Venetian than Spanish, but no matter, because even the tapas menu isn't strictly Spanish.

The establishment's Web site proclaims Angelina's to be "the number one tapas restaurant in Southern Arizona." Well, no, that would be Casa Vicente downtown, which purveys strictly Spanish dishes and tends to feature live flamenco and classical Spanish guitar music rather than Angelina's jazz, pop and "live DJs." (People standing there playing recorded music--this merits the word "live"?)

While Angelina's positions itself--in part--as a tapas restaurant, it obviously isn't trying to be Spanish (otherwise it wouldn't call itself a "ristorante," which is Italian, not Spanish). Rather, it is striving to present an almost overwhelming array of little (and not-so-little) dishes inspired by cuisines from around the world--Spain, Italy, India, China, Mexico, New Orleans, on and on. With good reason, the first page of the menu employs the word "eclectic" twice within three consecutive sentences.

We stopped by for dinner a couple of weeks ago and ignored the pizza menu on the principle that pizza is far easier to find in Tucson than tapas (although, admittedly, pizzas topped with duck confit or mashed potatoes aren't so common).

The tapas pages yielded to us quite a variety of land and sea flavors. Everyone at the table managed to sample everything (after having to ask for extra plates), even Angelina's French onion soup ($8.45), something inherently not conducive to sharing. This was a lovely, mild soup with triple deglazed onion, Gruyère cheese and what the menu calls grilled "cibatta," which is actually the Italian white bread properly called "ciabatta." C'mon, guys ... sloppy spelling detracts from even the most careful food preparation.

The other items (those not requiring a bowl) were elegantly plated and seasoned with finesse. The spicy fusion calamari ($10.95) was subtly spiced, even though the little flash-fried squid bits were accompanied by chorizo, as well as (very) small amounts of cannellini, with fairly hot Cholula sauce on the side. Oddly, the Louisiana crab cakes ($12.45) were even spicier, but not to an overpowering extent; you could still taste the crab, not just the finish of a nice mango salsa and tomato glaze.

The tasty Tuscan stuffed mushrooms ($7.45) looked a bit like sausage patties, and in a way, they were: tiny portobellos topped with ground sausage and herbs, plus two cheeses and a basil reduction. Among the meatless options were a fried green tomato Napoleon ($8.95)--the tomato slices battered, fried and stacked atop corn salad and goat cheese, with a roasted red pepper coulis and basil chiffonade--and truffled artichoke ($7.95), a simple preparation of marinated hearts drizzled with truffle oil and balsamic reduction, with cheese shavings. Both were very satisfying, and not as rich as the descriptions might make you think.

The desserts (most in the neighborhood of $8.45) are worth investigating. Until Thanksgiving, the crème brülée (a very large portion) is pumpkin-flavored; its consistency is more like pumpkin mousse, with a very crisp top.

The martinis won't knock you out of your chair with their alcohol content; the three we tried ($8 to $10) were nicely balanced, despite the many ingredients listed on the menu, and the berry and citrus versions were crisp but not as bitter as such things can be. Still, my advice would be to skip the martinis (unless you're sitting at the bar) and accompany your food with the sangria (red or white; $12 for a half-carafe, $24 for a full one). It's made fresh every day and, hallelujah, it's not sticky-sweet but simply infused with wonderful fruit flavors, with blueberries making a perfect contribution the night we visited.

Angelina's is less satisfying in matters other than food and drink. As I mentioned, we had to ask for individual plates for tapas-sharing, and we had to wait a very long time for the desserts to arrive (because they're made to order, explained the server). The menu changes every month, but the staff doesn't manage to replace all the old pages, so some diners receive outdated menus. The menus on the restaurant's Web site weren't listing accurate prices when I checked, either. You can make reservations at the site through, and there's a map that shows you how to find the place (it's off the beaten path, in a strip mall where Oro Valley's First Avenue intersects with Tangerine Road and becomes Rancho Vistoso Boulevard).

Somebody isn't paying attention to the little details, and that detracts from what is otherwise an interesting and rewarding culinary experience.