Crowd Pleaser

Service is a little bumpy at Vivace's new St. Phillip's Plaza venue, but the food is fabulous.

The news was well received by most Vivace fans when Chef Daniel Scordato announced his plans to set up shop in the former Terra Cotta space in St. Philips Plaza. Not only is St. Philips Plaza a much lovelier site, but the new venue would provide a far more ample dining area.

Vivace elegantly has claimed the former Terra Cotta space as its own. Blessedly, the restaurant no longer is a deafening venue garishly done up in turquoise and pink. Stylish in its understatement, Vivace's soothing earth tones enrich and calm down what used to be a fairly jangly dining room.

I don't think there are many Vivace regulars who question Chef Scordato's sure and polished touch. But essentially doubling the size of his former venue brought into question the ability to retain what marked Vivace as a dining venue: its concentrated effort to provide a leisurely and well attended dining event.

Well, be sure to make a reservation. The place is packed. On two separate occasions I made the error of calling for a reservation only a day in advance and was told I would have to wait until the last possible seating to be accommodated. I finally wised up and made a reservation a full week in advance.

This is good. Tucson is definitely deserving of a worthy Italian dining destination. Lord knows we have enough fraudulent knock-offs. And from the moment that you are seated you will be reminded that you are in a restaurant that devotes itself to one of the fundamental tenets of good Italian cooking: homage to rustic pure flavors delivered via the freshest product possible.

Take, for example, the oil and bread promptly served tableside. The bread, a warm and flavorful foccacia is served with extra virgin olive oil flecked green with fresh basil and infused with garlic. The heady combination is simple yet complete. It sets the stage for good things to come.

While Vivace dinner hours are busy, lunch is still a safe bet for getting a good table at a decent time. The restaurant fills, but at a more leisurely pace.

Lunch offerings are plentiful and receive careful attention to ingredients and preparation. The antipasto ($8.50) is a winning choice. The platter covers the gamut of teasing the palate with earthy and salty flavors. The marinated artichoke hearts, sweet roasted red peppers, creamy goat cheese, asparagus and sautéed spinach offer plenty of satisfying flavors and textures. In particular, the spinach, sautéed with butter and garlic, provides just the right smoky flavor and tender textures to marry with all the flavors on the plate. If you opt for this lunch, you'll leave feeling all is right with the world.

Many other tempting pastas and sandwiches round out lunch options. The farfalle pasta ($8.50) is a hearty lunch worth indulging in. The pasta, cooked until just tender, is matched with bite size pieces of spinach, fresh mushroom, roasted pepper, dabs of goat cheese and a generous sprinkling of pine nuts. Textures and flavors are all in balance. Truly, Scordato knows pasta and his light, sustained touch breathes life into the simplest pasta dish.

One wishes the food alone could make a dining experience. On both recent dining occasions, however, the service at Vivace felt stretched and harried. Rushed servers zipped around the room at pace signaling barely contained hysteria. Busing staff were on a regular patrol with water, bread and coffee refills, but they also grabbed plates still being eaten and added to the impression that when the venue is full, it starts to spiral out of control.

I don't mind a leisurely paced meal. In fact, I prefer it. But even I was dumbfounded at the stretch of time yawning between courses, or the vast period of time when servers simply disappeared.

Not surprisingly, dinner on a busy weekend night yielded excellent food erratically served. We started with the grilled asparagus and parma prosciutto ($7.95) and the Roquefort cheese, pear and walnut salad ($5.50). They are old favorites that blessedly have not changed one jot. The excellent quality of ingredients insures fresh bright bursts of flavor. The smoky grilled asparagus and the velvety folds of prosciutto make a perfect foil for each other. And clearly god intended Roquefort cheese, pears and walnuts to sit on the same plate. Crisp greens and carefully plated presentations indicate you are in the hands of an old friend.

We ordered a pizza to sample while we waited for entrees. Offering Neopolitan style pizza, we expected a thin and crispy crust, so the doughy, yeasty crust was an unwelcome surprise. The toppings, however, were a classic study in simplicity. Slices of eggplant, quartered fresh tomatoes, red peppers and Romano cheese made for a sweet and earthy combination. At a modest $9.50, this makes a lovely light meal or a pleasant way to pass the time as you wait.

And you will wait. If you want a relaxed meal, you won't be disappointed. When our meals did arrive, we were especially pleased with the seafood soup ($17.95). A bold red pepper and tomato broth studded with fresh mussels, shrimp, sea bass, and pasta, this generous bowl easily could feed two.

The risotto ($14.95) won us over, mostly with its simplicity. A light touch of tomato sparked the high notes of fresh sugar snap peas and shrimp. Both the elemental textures and simple flavors in this dish earn the full stature of what risotto is meant to do: comfort.

After the main course, we ordered dessert. The warm chocolate "molton" cake ($7.50) was baked to order. Your waiter should alert you to the fact that this dessert takes 25 minutes to prepare. Perhaps the timing went astray for us, but when the cake was served it had once been molten, but not anytime in recent memory. The very edges of the cake were still warm but the middle of it was cool and runny. Graciously, this was replaced with the Tiramisu ($5). I'm pleased to report that the Vivace's Tiramisu still earns its reputation as the best in Tucson. A widely translated dessert, this feather-light Tiramisu melts in the mouth with just the right combination of creamy marscapone, light sponge cake and a bittersweet chocolate dusting.

I imagine in time, Chef Scordato will iron out glitches with trying to accommodate and adequately serve his onslaught of admiring fans. That isn't a bad position to be in, lost in a room full of adoring people clamoring to be served by a chef they love. A bit of patience is necessary, but it's worth it.

Vivace. St. Philips Plaza. 795-7221. Monday through Thursday: 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Closed Sundays. MC, Visa, AmEx, DC. No checks. Menu Items: $5.50-$25.50. Full Bar. Full Cover. Central. Reservations: recommended.