Decent Food, Dirty Walls

The food's OK, and the prices are reasonable, but Chariot's walls and booths could really use a good scrub

On the way to work or school or wherever you regularly go, there's probably a little restaurant that you've noticed but never bothered to visit.

Well, why don't you check the place out? What do you have to lose? After all, life is all about new experiences, and the restaurant could turn out to be an amazing find--or, if not, at least your curiosity will be sated.

Take Chariot Italian Bistro, for instance. I've been driving by the place, on Alvernon Way just north of 29th Street, for almost a year and a half now, and I finally decided to check it out. And, well I can say that my curiosity has indeed been sated, if nothing else.

I stopped by Chariot on a recent weekday for lunch with Hugh Dougherty. We walked in and grabbed paper menus from the counter. The menu looked impressive--lots of sandwiches ($4.29-$5.99), salads, gyros ($4.49), Italian specialties ($4.99-$5.99) and the staple, pizza. The prices are reasonable, too; as the menu correctly points out, Chariot's pies are a buck or two less than you'd pay at some other places around town, and a wide variety of toppings are up for grabs.

After examining the wares, Hugh and I decided to split a large Chariot's Supreme ($16.99, a 16-inch pie with pepperoni, black olives, onions, ham, mushrooms, green peppers, sausage and extra cheese). We paid the guy at the counter--a somber, quiet sort who spoke only when absolutely necessary--and went and chose a seat.

At first glance, Chariot fits the strip-mall pizza-place décor stereotype. The walls are white, adorned with plastic green plants and prints of classic art. You can sit at a table (covered in plastic) or a booth and watch one of the TVs that are mounted in corners, and there's a pool table if you're up for a game. But upon closer inspection, Chariot is atypical in a somewhat disturbing fashion: It's not the cleanest place in the world. The floors are fine, and the tables looked to be adequately bussed, but the wooden frames of the booths looked greasy, presumably from the oily hands of pizza-chomping kids. And the white walls are filthy in some areas, with various colors of god-knows-what above the chipped paint where the tables meet the wall. It made me wonder what the kitchen looked like.

Unfortunately, on that first visit, Hugh and I had plenty of time to examine the walls and the greasy booths--it took a full 25 minutes for our pizza to arrive. Was it worth the wait? Well, the pie was decent--the crust was not too thick and not too thin, and the toppings were in adequate supply. The sauce was OK, and the ingredients seemed fresh. It wasn't the best pizza I've had in Tucson, but it certainly wasn't the worst. After getting a to-go box (the guy at the counter gave us a small-sized box, meaning the slices had to overlap, which made for something of a mess later), we left, unimpressed with Chariot.

We returned a few days later, also at lunch time, to give the restaurant another whack. This time, a different guy worked the counter; he was a more friendly sort. I ordered the chicken parmigiana dinner ($5.99), and Hugh got an Italian grinder sandwich ($4.29), and we decided to split an order of 12 medium-hot buffalo wings ($4.99, 24 for $8.99).

We sat at a booth, and unfortunately, the walls and booth frames were as dirty as ever. I chatted with Hugh and checked out the TVs to distract my attention from the messy walls--one TV was tuned to an episode of NYPD Blue, while the other had on the Fox News Channel. The clientele seemed more family-oriented than on our first visit, when the clientele had been predominantly made up of frat boys.

Our food didn't take as long to arrive this time, and like the pizza, we found our meals to be decent, if not fantastic. When I asked Hugh how his sandwich was--featuring ham, salami, pepperoni, lettuce, tomato, onion, peppers, mozzarella and Italian dressing on a white roll--he said it tasted like a typical grinder. My chicken parmigiana--a breaded chicken breast on spaghetti with marinara sauce and cheese--was tasty, although the chicken breast seemed more thigh-sized than breast-sized. Nonetheless, the cheese-intensive dish was satisfying, especially given the small price. And on an even more pleasant note, Hugh and I both enjoyed the wings--they were nice and spicy, and the sauce, featuring large black pepper grains, was terrific.

All in all, Chariot was a mixed bag. The food was fine overall--not the kind of grub you should go out of your way for, but definitely good enough if you happen to be driving by. But even then, I can't recommend Chariot. When I think of the restaurant, visions of the filthy wall supercede my fond thoughts for the wings. There's just no excuse.

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