AFTER EXPERIENCING A period of revitalization in the early half of the last decade, Tucson's downtown is yet again in a state of partial decline. In particular, we've lost several good dining establishments, including Janos, Café Magritte and Cushing Street Bar & Grill. A downtown without suitable dining after dark isn't much of a hub. Thank goodness for Barrio Grill and El Minuto, the most laudable survivors of this latest exodus, who continue to nourish those who travel downtown to enjoy any number of musical, theatrical and art events scheduled there.
In addition, there's a promising new kid on the block. Well, actually it's kind of an old new kid. Anyone who's been around Tucson for more than a few years is familiar with the Samaniego House, a historic landmark and restaurant located on the grounds of the Tucson Convention Center that's seen more incarnations than Bridey Murphy. In the latest embodiment, the converted house has become Lume Trattoria & Wine Bar, a contemporary Italian eatery that successfully fuses the charm of a territorial past with the chic of more modern dining trends. It's an appealing combination.
Historically speaking, the edifice represents an authentic legacy from Tucson's past. It was originally the home of politician and businessman Mariano Samaniego, who staked out his claim in the 1860s. The building may have undergone some renovations here and there in the intervening years, but 3-foot adobe walls and saguaro rib ceilings from that bygone era still dominate the interior design scheme. The ceilings are relatively low, and several small rooms lend an air of intimacy and comfort to the homey surroundings. Dark, sensuous hues of salmon and plum accent the interior along with a gallery exhibition of original artwork on every wall.
The bar is a particularly inviting space, consisting of a substantial wooden counter, a few closely spaced tables and a cool, urbane ambiance. It's a great place to enjoy Happy Hour, which convenes from 3 to 7 p.m. every Monday through Saturday.
While the architecture and design may manifest a distinctive Southwestern character, the menu is devoted to the cuisine of Italy. Curiously, the marriage of trattoria and casita is an auspicious union.
Lume serves both lunch and dinner, with the earlier meal including sandwiches and the latter featuring such entrées as veal, lamb and fresh seafood. Pasta appears in abundance on both menus. True to the name, wine is a featured aspect of the Lume experience; but frankly, we were nonplussed by our rather limited choices at this "wine bar." The wine list consists of one double-sided page of domestic and foreign vintages, which admirably reflect wine for every budget. It's not a deep list, however, which will no doubt leave many connoisseurs mumbling into their napkins. Though the list is brief, it does encompass many fine selections.
An appetizer of bruschetta alla mozzarella ($7.95) is a lovely antipasti, especially well-suited to a glass of your favorite Chianti. Triangles of toasted focaccia seasoned with olive oil and garlic are topped with chopped fresh tomatoes, basil, oregano and grated mozzarella before being gently broiled just until the cheese is barely melted. It's a simple hors d'oeuvre, really, but when the flavors are as bold and alive as those tasted here, it's a dish that dazzles. Lume further accentuates the luscious nature of the basic ingredients with the inclusion of a semi-sweet balsamic glaze drizzled evenly (and decoratively) over the pieces.
Even a simple green house salad ($5.95; or $2 with an entrée) can be transformed at Lume into something of understated grace. Garden fresh mixed greens, sliced Roma tomatoes, rings of sweet purple onion and a grating of sharp asiago cheese form the base, with a choice of several vinaigrette dressings (from trendy balsamic to a fruity red raspberry) bringing out the best in those consummately fresh ingredients. We dive into a cabernet variation on the vinaigrette and are thoroughly delighted with the result: a buoyant, tangy zing with a full-bodied fragrance that wraps itself luxuriously around every leaf and vegetable. It's been a long time since the house salad at a restaurant grabbed my attention so completely.
Believing that any Italian restaurant worth its salt should sell a decent plate of spaghetti and meatballs, I order the closest cousin to this dish on Lume's menu -- linguine and meatballs ($8.95). A large, steaming bowl of noodles settles into a deep, red marinara sauce flecked with Italian parsley and generously sized meatballs. Grated asiago gives off the scent of pure love as it's placed before me. At first taste, the sauce seems merely adequate; but as the meal continues, the restrained flavors begin to emerge. Sweet tomatoes, a hint of basil, oregano, parsley and perhaps a dash of thyme, and the meatballs' satisfyingly rich blending of ground veal and sirloin, lightly seasoned, become increasingly delightful next to the slightly nutty flavor aged cheese. If this dish is the yardstick, Lume measures up fully.
Another pasta entrée of penne e fungi ($7.95) is equally impressive. Tubular pasta tossed in a melange of fresh mushrooms, garlic, olive oil and white wine constitutes a truffle lover's paradise. Again, there's nothing intricate about the dish's composition, but the balance is so deft that the end result becomes something magnificent.
Our least successful sampling turns out to be the most extravagant. The bistecca specialita ($18.95) consists of a grilled New York strip steak topped with a restrained smattering of gorgonzola brandy butter, with a mound of coarsely mashed garlic potatoes and sautéed, julienned vegetables on the side. The steak was tasty if chewy, and the potatoes satisfactory but unremarkable. The vegetables are fresh and deftly cooked, but a tad on the oily side. Given the pastas' triumph, the rather ordinary execution of this dish is a grave disappointment.
Dessert redeemed our opinion of Lume, however, by being every bit as delicious as our earlier culinary encounters. The tiramisu is an admirable rendition of the layered ladyfinger, mascarpone cheese and espresso fantasy known to make grown men swoon. Most delightful, though, is a fresh raspberry sorbet, which turned out to be the ideal way to cleanse the palate while satisfying the yearning for something sweet. Every spoonful of this icy fruit concoction is ecstasy, rather like biting into the ripest berry on a hot summer's day.
Service at Lume is adequate, but there's a lackadaisical attitude among the staff that's troubling. Once the theatre, opera and symphony season is in full swing, Lume's staff will have to improve its ability to get people in and out of the restaurant in a timely fashion.
Patrons of the arts are a natural and built-in clientele for Lume, but if they want these folks to keep coming back throughout the season, they're going to have to pick up the pace.
During the dog days of summer it's an excusable lapse, and hopefully one the restaurant is working on. Because I really want Lume to flourish. It might have a few kinks to work out, but it's as promising a new star on the downtown dining scene as we've seen in a very long time: classy, historical and downright tasty. Lume's success encourages the notion that our humble downtown will yet again thrive. Perhaps (to steal a phrase from that old scoundrel Mark Twain) the reports of downtown's death have -- yet again -- been greatly exaggerated.
Lume Trattoria & Wine Bar. 222 S. Church Ave. 884-9420. Open 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 5 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; and 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday. Full bar. V, MC, AMEX. Menu items: $3.50 - $20.95.