Italian on Oracle

Up in Catalina, Vitello's is serving some delicious fare

Catalina isn't exactly known as a culinary wonderland. Not that long ago, choices were limited to fast-food places, a steakhouse and a tiny, albeit cozy, café.

But things are changing. These days, in one small strip mall alone, you can enjoy Mexican, Greek or Italian food. You've come a long way, Catalina!

Vitello's is the Italian spot. It's a charming mom-and-pop joint (indeed, mom, pop and two kids were there on both of our visits) that offers a full array of Italian dishes. And based both on what we sampled and the steady stream of diners—mostly older couples from the nearby retirement community—it seems that the folks at Vitello's know what they're doing.

There are two rooms that are divided into several seating areas by half-walls topped with wooden lattice, helping to create a cozy, intimate atmosphere. The walls have maps of Italy, posters of Italy and paintings of Italy. A white board with the evening's specials sits near the door; Italian pop tunes play quietly in the background. The only TV we saw was a tiny portable set that sat unobtrusively (and precariously) on a display case.

To kick off one meal, we ordered the calamari fritti ($7). Vitello's version was lightly breaded, perfectly tender and served with a tasty marinara sauce for dipping. Both rings and tentacles are part of this dish.

A basket of house-made bread comes with every meal. It's dense and perfect for sopping up all sorts of sauces. All entrées come with either soup or salad; veal entrées also come with the option of the daily vegetables.

We went with the salad with the house Italian dressing. The salad was pretty typical, with lettuce, spinach, cabbage, tomatoes and the like; it was nothing to write home about. But the Vitello mezzaluna ($17) was fantastic. Practically paper-thin slices of veal in a flavorful breading had been sautéed with slices of prosciutto and were then covered in a bright, creamy vodka-cream sauce. The veal was so tender and thin that we didn't need a knife. The prosciutto added a pleasant saltiness, and the vodka sauce was piquant and creamy. So many flavors and textures—but it all worked quite well. The dish came with a side of spaghetti with the house marinara, which provided a nice balance to all that richness in the entrée.

The menu is full of tempting pasta choices, but when there's gnocchi ($11) on the menu, that's the way to go. These pasta dumplings made from potatoes are often heavy and sticky, but not so here. These were light and fluffy, and the creamy tomato gorgonzola sauce was luscious. The cheese added a wonderful tang and richness; I woke up the next morning wanting more.

The side here was pasta e fagioli (pasta and bean soup). It was a little disappointing; the broth tasted too much like tomato soup, and it could've used more beans. But it did have oodles of ditali (little tubes) pasta, which was a nice touch.

We ordered the cannoli ($4.50) for dessert to go ... and forgot to bring it with us. Oops.

Since pizza plays a big part on the menu at Vitello's (we noticed numerous customers popping in to get pizza to go), we ordered the 12-inch Catalina ($11). Atop a rustic crust were homemade sausage, pepperoni, red onions, black olives, green peppers and mushrooms, as well as the requisite sauce and gooey cheese. The pie was as tasty as it was colorful.

The linguini alle vongole ($12) came with a choice of white or red sauce; I decided on the white. The linguini was topped with a mountain of sweet, tender clams and a healthy portion of garlic. The sauce—or, better yet, the broth—was a tad thin, but still held that lovely kiss of the sea that makes this dish so darned good. I dunked some of that yummy bread in the leftover broth. Ah, now that was a real treat!

Service on both visits was friendly and efficient, if not exactly polished.

The wine list is prominently midrange Italian—there must be at least a half-dozen Chiantis—but we didn't order wine on either visit, because driving a long way after a glass of wine or two is not a good idea.

We ordered the cannoli again. They were small but exactly what cannoli should be: rich, creamy, slightly tangy and most pleasing.

My schedule didn't allow me to sample the lunch menu, so we missed the panini (ranging from $6.75 to $7.95). Other sandwiches ($7 or $8) are also available, as is pizza by the slice and other offerings.

Vitello's is a charming little spot with a pleasant cozy atmosphere and some fine Italian chow. While Vitello's is not just down the street for most Tucson Weekly readers, it is definitely worth a visit.

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