Italian Master

Chef Michael Veres makes Cibaria worth a pilgrimage to Oro Valley.

If there are unsung and largely unrecognized artists that walk in our midst, I would have to say they are chefs. And their lives are hopelessly complicated. They are notoriously overworked and underpaid, and have to be skilled in minute-to-minute crisis management. They do all this while they stand on their feet for 12 hours at a stretch.

So long as they don't have substance-abuse or latent-anger issues, chefs are a delightful lot. They live a sensual, aesthetic life in the most direct terms. They haven't labored under useless aesthetic paradigms. The best of them acquire their craft in an apprenticeship, which gives them a deep understanding of whatever culinary tradition they preserve. They are the artists of the common man and pirates of the art world: They deal in commerce and thievery, appease obscenities and perversions of human appetites, yet they still put to use their splendid, ephemeral gifts. They labor under a humble and finite sense of the time-space continuum: What they create is meant to be immediately consumed, momentarily savored, then turned to waste. A simpler truth cannot be found. For this, I love them.

When I find chefs worth noting, I like to keep track of where they go, and where they choose to practice their craft. So when Michael Veres left Daniel's, many of us mourned. The Ali family, the dynasty that owns so many local Italian restaurants, lured Veres into a partial partnership at Cibaria Cucina Italiana. Since every chef should own his own venue, we were sad but we understood. Then we planned to visit as soon as possible.

Cibaria is located so far up in Oro Valley you'll be convinced you've entered a different time zone long before you get there. By the time we arrived, we were weary travelers. The drive up Oracle seemed as if it would never end, and various members of our group had threatened to commence gnawing on their own limbs. Plummeting blood sugar had taken its toll, and one particular member had a specific agenda: fried calamari and a pizza. Period. Now. Exclamation point.

We were a weary and savage bunch that entered Cibaria. Blessedly, we were rapidly welcomed and seated. Disaster threatened to strike with the lack of fried calamari on the menu, but a savvy server and accommodating kitchen said they could make a serving. To keep order in the ranks, and avoid any cannibalism at the table, we also ordered a Da Vinci pizza and Isola portobello as appetizers to nurse us back to our senses as we contemplated the menu.

While those who live in Oro Valley don't have a lot of dining options, we Tucson folks do. So Veres' immediate challenge has been to create and sustain a menu that will make Cibaria a destination restaurant. While we contemplated the rather overwhelming menu we began to worry that perhaps Veres had been roped into a venue that wouldn't showcase his strengths. The menu sprawls in many different directions, and many of the dishes offered seem routine.

We needn't have worried. The first plate to arrive was the calamari. Still sizzling and tender, it had been freshly dredged and fried to a delicate crunch, turned out with a bit of warm marinara, a sprig of basil, a smattering of black pepper. To a large extent, fried calamari is a uniform dish; it's hard to ruin. But the attention to details, a deft preparation and the generosity of the gesture reassured us we were in the care of a skilled chef.

The pizza steamed forth next, a rich and satisfying pie featuring pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms, black olives and green bell pepper. Called the Da Vinci ($16), this was the right combination of flavors, and the simple, rustic presentation earmarked it as noteworthy.

But it was the Isola portobello ($6.75) that returned this motley crew to its senses. Served in a pool of a creamy red pepper sauce, atop a polenta crisp, the portobello is served in its full glory, topped with roma tomatoes and breadcrumbs. Visually striking, the dish was layered in flavors and textures, unpacking many wonders on a very small plate. The only odd touch was a dollop of herbed cream cheese perched on top, which seemed out of keeping with the rich, earthy tones of the rest of the plate. Yet it was this dollop of cream cheese that restored our group to general cheer: We were discussing a minor detail in an otherwise sumptuous dish. This is always the first sign that one has found an establishment worthy of discussion. We returned to the menu with vigor, collective appetites and interests sparked.

Many entrées jostle for attention on the menu. The Polenta Capponata ($12.95) is a dish I'd brave the endless drive for more than once. This is über comfort food: a bowl of creamy polenta slathered in eggplant, zucchini, mushrooms and Italian sausage. A zippy marinara and melted mozzarella turn this into a dish everyone wanted to claim as their own.

Pesce Puttanesca ($18.95) appeared as a sultry and warming bowl of rich tomato broth studded with tiger shrimp, enormous tender scallops, calamari and a judicious smattering of green and black olives. A riotous tumble of earthy flavors, chopped roma tomatoes, plenty of anchovies and a slightly spicy zip, this dish lived up to its slatternly namesake. Served with farfalle, this dish can happily feed two. Priced as it is, it is certainly a bargain.

A special salad offered that night, spinach tossed with chicken roulades, sun-dried tomatoes, pine nuts, bits of bacon and a lemony citrus dressing, was delightful. Especially when compared with the house salad, which wasn't nearly so inspired.

The Farfalle dell'Estate ($13.25) sparked some debate. Starkly plated, this pasta wasn't as rich or complex as the other dishes. It was fairly straightforward, featuring equal amounts of pasta, mushroom, eggplant, red pepper and artichoke; some felt it tasted fairly bland, while others countered this was pasta as it was meant to be served: not overly dressed but as an integral part of a dish.

Throughout the meal, the servers were attentive and knowledgeable about the food. While this isn't as rarefied an environment as we're used to seeing Veres operate in, in many ways it is a more enjoyable one. The more informal setting allows more of a sense of play to enter the menu. Word has it that a new streamlined menu will be forthcoming, as will some special winemaker events.

Cibaria may be in a far-flung place, but the addition of this particular chef certainly makes the drive worth the while. It's almost enough to contemplate joining the mass migration up into the bladed hinterlands of the northwest side just to be a bit closer to Veres' sublime touch. Almost ...

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