Bistro Buddies

Life's good when delicious food is shared with old friends at Livorno

There are few pleasures as sweet as sharing a great meal with good friends. And so it was one recent Friday evening that John and I met our good friends--Libby and Don Mack and Susan and Barry Frank--at Livorno, a Country Bistro, on North Oracle Road.

We've known these people most of our adult lives, and I consider myself most fortunate to have friends such as these. Who better to share a new dining experience with? But if you think this is going to be one of those chatty pieces a la "My dinner with ...," it's not. We were there for a good time and good food. We got both.

Livorno is located in a building that has housed quite a few restaurants in the last 10 years or so. Just why all these places folded is up for speculation, but a good guess would be "location, location, location." The building itself is nondescript and usually looks deserted; the driveway is easy to miss; signage is at a minimum.

Here's hoping Livorno can overcome these drawbacks, because this "country bistro" serves up damned good food. Just about everything we had that night was freshly prepared, served with style, and delicious.

The place was totally empty when we arrived. We thought for a bit that we were in for a private dining experience, but eventually, a few other folks showed up. Not enough to keep the staff busy, but then again, it was July in Tucson.

White tablecloths and lovely centerpieces grace the tables. The color scheme is subdued, which shows off the local artwork hung on the walls. There is a small alcove along a windowed wall, a cozy place for smaller parties.

A full array of beverages is available, and the wine list seems designed with the food in mind. Many are available by the glass. Our server made us feel right at home as he took our drink order and informed us of the specials. Livorno offers both regular specials and "summer specials"; the summer specials are a mere $20 and come with a salad and a fresh fruit cup for dessert.

Seven small bites--appetizers--and six people ... which do we omit? Our server suggested we opt out of the fresh heirloom and vine-ripened tomatoes, and order the house-made mozzarella with tomato, basil, roasted peppers and olive oil ($6.95). We also ordered the crostini topped with more of the house-made mozzarella and tomatoes ($4.95), stuffed pizza bites ($5.95), tourchan foie gras on crostini with baby greens and white truffle oil ($7.95), carpaccio with fried capers, aioli and more of the truffle oil ($8.95) and shrimp wrapped with grilled proscuitto in a spicy lemon/wine butter ($9.95).

The appetizers were brought out a few at a time, which gave us the opportunity to really taste each one. The shrimp won rave reviews from everyone. The salty proscuitto and sweet shrimp were further enhanced by a spicy, lemony sauce drizzled on top. Libby liked the foie gras, and I'd have to agree, even though I am not a foie gras fan; it was creamy and understated. Susan enjoyed the house-made mozzarella and tomatoes, and again, I'd have to agree. The fresh cheese and fresher tomatoes were outstanding. The guys really liked the pizza bites, of course. Three good-sized calzones, these goodies were fully stuffed with homemade sausage, peppers, onions and tomatoes--a meal unto themselves. We all liked the cheesy crostini, but the carpaccio left a little to be desired. It was slightly bland in spite of the oil drizzled over it, and the slices were a tad too thick.

We skipped the menu salads, because three of the entrées came with salads, which were perhaps the only real disappointment of the night. While the greens were fresh, there could have been a touch more of the olive oil dressing (I can hear my daughter groan, since she feels I drown my salads), but that was the general consensus at the table.

As far as entrées go, we were all over the board. Barry ordered the steak poivre ($22.95)--a filet cut, crispy with pepper yet juicy and tender to the bite. Served on a bed of garlic mashed potatoes, this was an ideal choice for someone who enjoys a great piece of beef, as Barry does.

Libby's shrimp with angel hair pasta ($16.95) was superb. The grilled shrimp were tender and sweet, and the airy, creamy lemon-spiked sauce didn't overpower the tender pasta. Susan also ordered a pasta dish--mini penne tossed generously with a sauce made of sausage, peppers, garlic, olive oil and basil ($10.95). The pasta sauce was most flavorful, but it was the homemade sausage that gave zing to this plate.

John and Don both ordered pork entrées: John went with the pork medallions ($19.95), and Don opted for the pork scaloppini (a $20 summer special). Distinctly different in both presentation and flavor, John's medallions were cooked in a pan sauce rich with butter. The polenta cake on the side was lightly toasted and reminded me of my grandmother's polenta--truly authentic. Don's scaloppini consisted of thinly sliced pork in a red wine sauce enhanced with both butter and cream. His side was angel hair pasta and again, the sauce did not overwhelm the delicate pasta.

My ono ($24.95) was a two-inch-thick disc of perfectly pan-seared white fish. Served on herbed risotto, the fish flaked at the touch and practically melted in my mouth, and the risotto was rich and creamy.

Desserts consisted of the fresh fruit cup that came with Don's summer special, a raspberry crepe ($4.25) and a double chocolate brownie ($5.95). All three were delicious, even the fruit cup, which so often is a slapdash concoction heavy on the melon. In the Livorno version, there were several types of berries, melon and wonderfully sweet pineapple pieces, and a barely sweet crème was drizzled over the top. The crepe was packed with raspberries in a tasty compote, and the brownie, well, the brownie was sinfully dense and rich with flavor. Too small perhaps, but then I tend think all chocolate desserts are too small.

Livorno, a Country Bistro, is open for lunch during the week; I definitely want to give it a try soon. Maybe the girls can make a day of it. A hint if you go (and you should): Watch for a plant nursery sign and take the driveway immediately past it.

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