Classic Tucson Italian

Caruso's continues to draw crowds with its warm service and inexpensive meals.

I like all food genres (with the exception of those involving Brussels sprouts or Rocky Mountain oysters), but Italian is my favorite. The pastas, the sauces, the garlic--where can you go wrong?

Therefore, I was excited to check out Caruso's for the first time. It seems to be the town's best-loved Italian restaurant, if word of mouth and past Best of Tucson votes are any indication. What I had heard is summed up best by these lines from The Weekly's 1995 Best of Tucson:

"Since it first opened its doors for business back in 1938, Caruso's has been a Tucson favorite. ... Some food critics might turn up their noses at the place, but there is no question that all of those people gathered outside waiting to be seated on a Friday or Saturday could care less. They know that Caruso's has consistently satisfied for years and they trust it to do so once more."

After visiting the place, I couldn't agree more.

I met my friend René there on a recent Saturday night--in the midst of a downpour. As I headed for Fourth Avenue from my eastside digs, traversing flooded intersections on Speedway Boulevard, I wondered: What kind of weirdos, myself included, would be out in this weather?

It turns out a lot of different kinds of weirdos--there was a 20-minute wait when I arrived at Caruso's at 8 p.m. on the button. I was disappointed that because of the weather, Caruso's famous patio wasn't a very logical option. Thus, René and I chatted in the cozy waiting area until it was our turn.

The atmosphere at Caruso's is friendly and warm--something that carried over to our server and even the busboy, who needlessly and charmingly fretted over the fact that he was having problems pouring water without splashing.

Therefore, René and I were in a good mood when it came time to order. The menu features what most people think of as typical Italian cuisine--spaghetti, ravioli, meatballs, Italian sausages and a host of other pasta and entrée dishes. Pizza's on the menu, too.

For appetizers, we decided to get the antipasto for two ($7.95). For entrées, René chose the lasagne al forno ($7.90), which the menu touted as "our all-time favorite," and I chose the cheese manicotti and meat-filled cannellone ($9.25). It came with a choice of spaghetti with Caruso sauce, Italian salad or minestrone soup; I went with the soup.

The antipasto was delivered on a large, white plate, covered with a variety of foods--peppers, olives, baby corn, onions, tomatoes, provolone cheese, pepperoni and salami on a bed of lettuce--with a cup of Italian dressing on the side. René and I dug in and quickly finished off the plate, with the exception of a few stray pieces of romaine. All of the vegetables were crisp, and the meats and cheese were standard but tasty nonetheless.

My soup arrived soon afterward. Minestrone is one of my favorite soups, and I've had it at dozens, if not hundreds, of restaurants over the years. Caruso's attempt at the soup fell somewhere in the middle of the pack. On the plus side, it was chock full of fresh vegetables, several types of beans and barley, but the flavor was otherwise bland. It was not a bad soup by any means, but it could have used a bit more in the way of spices.

After I tore through an entire basket of garlic bread by myself--it was delicious--our main courses arrived. René said his lasagne was great, with the homemade noodles, beef and cheese blending nicely with the generically named "cheese-meat sauce." A bite for me confirmed that it was good stuff. It wasn't anything fancy--just good.

The same could be said for my cannellone and manicotti. The manicotti was made from spinach pasta and filled with ricotta and Parmesan cheeses. Covered in tomato sauce, there wasn't much to it, but it was palatable, thanks to fresh, high-quality ingredients. My cannellone, a egg pasta tube with a meat paste inside, was decent--the paste was somewhat flavorless, meaning the tomato sauce's taste was all there was to the flavor. Nonetheless, I cleaned my plate and was satisfied.

Though we were both full, René and I ordered dessert. He got the tortoni ($2.50) with an espresso ($1.75) and I got the spumoni ($2.50) with a cup of decaf (1.25). Both the desserts were creamy and delicious. René devoured his macaroon/coconut ice cream treat, and I quickly ate my neopolitan-style dessert. They were perfect caps to the meal.

René and I left satisfied. Yes, there were some flaws in the meal that this food critic could turn up his nose at--but the friendly atmosphere and the fresh, enjoyable foods at inexpensive prices will draw me back, along with most of the rest of Tucson.