Joe Goes Downtown

Ascolese's has a lot of room to improve--but the food can't be beat

When I heard that Joe Ascolese was closing his much-beloved Jersey Joe's to move downtown into a well-known Restaurant Space of Death--the beautiful, but seemingly jinxed Samaniego House--I wondered, to be frank, what in the hell he was thinking.

After a couple of visits to the new Ascolese's Italian Ristorante, I think I understand the move a little better. The Samaniego House, jinxed or not, exudes charm with its thick adobe walls and intimate dining rooms, and as a result, Ascolese's has a far more upscale appeal than Jersey Joe's ever did. Throw in the fantastic food Ascolese is known for, and he may have something. The draw of top-notch Italian cuisine in one of Tucson's most unique restaurant buildings is undeniable--but the details of service, pacing and even stocking need more attention.

Garrett and I first visited Ascolese's on a recent Sunday night. We overheard a server telling another diner that the restaurant--which at this point had only a handful of occupied tables--was swamped earlier, thanks to a Broadway in Tucson show at the Tucson Convention Center. This tidbit may help explain several problems: The service proved too fast. I want really fast service during a workday lunch; I don't want really fast service during a leisurely four-course dinner. But that's what we got.

What we didn't get: some of the appetizers we had our eye on. It's disappointing to spot an item on a menu that makes your mouth water, only to be told by the server that, sorry, the restaurant ran out. And that's precisely what happened with the bruschetta tomato bread ($5.95, with the menu teasing, "Like you've never had before!") and Patty's baked artichoke dip and crackers ($6.95, and touted as "absolutely delicious!"). Thankfully, they still had the fried calamari, with Ascolese's well-known marinara sauce ($8.95), so we ordered that, along with a basket of garlic bread ($4.95). We each also ordered a house salad ($3.95), with dressing on the side. For entrées, I picked the penne Siciliano rustico (shrimp, chicken and Italian sausage over penne al dente with a champagne cream sauce, $18.95), while Garrett ordered the Chef Tommy's pasta (garlic, shallots, mushrooms, peas, sun-dried tomatoes and prosciutto over rigatoni with aurora sauce, $16.95).

After ordering, we had a few moments to soak in the truly wonderful décor. The restaurant consists of three smallish rooms (four to six tables and/or booths in each) and a narrow, long bar that runs to the south of the rooms. Fireplaces, wooden floors and ceilings, stained-glass windows and hand-painted window sills are combined with framed prints and fake plants to create a strange mix of Italian/European bistro and Southwestern charms. It works.

Our polite, if a bit absentminded, server brought the garlic bread and the calamari. The tasty bread--with a whole bunch of fresh garlic and a sprinkling of parsley--was good. The calamari was a revelation: The squid itself was only passable--and the floured pieces of calamari were too small to properly pick up with your fingers and dip--yet the famous marinara made it all worthwhile. It was chunky with the taste of fresh herbs in abundance. It had the most depth of any marinara sauce I've had the pleasure to taste.

Our salads--mixed greens with onion and tomato, then topped with a pleasant raspberry vinaigrette, but mysteriously missing the promised croutons--were fine, although the dressing was on the salad and not on the side, as requested. I'd barely had a couple of bites when our entrées arrived. I was annoyed at the lack of pacing.

However, the annoyance soon turned to delight when I started nibbling on my pasta. Like the marinara, it had more depth than your average pasta dish: At first, I tasted the creaminess of the sauce and the flavor of the chicken, shrimp and/or sausage. Then, a moment later, a spicy kick hit my mouth. It was divine. It was pleasant to look at, too; flakes of parsley dotted the flat portion of the dish surrounding the pasta, and a broccoli spear added color on top. Garrett also relished his pasta. The creamy, tomatoey aurora sauce was sweet and complemented nicely by the various vegetables in the dish. Chef Tommy deserves props.

After a bit of a delay in getting the dishes cleared, we decided to split the New York cheesecake for dessert ($5.95); the only other dessert options (or "deserts," as spelled on the menu) are Italian ice cream ($3.95) and the dessert of the day ($5.95). The cheesecake was sweet, creamy and tasty--although it was drizzled with a bit of chocolate syrup that interfered with the cake's flavor.

We walked out raving about the food, and I looked forward to trying more of it on my lunch visit. I returned on a weekday to meet our music editor, Stephen Seigel--and learned that I was not going to get to try very much of that food: The lunch menu is surprisingly limited. There are two salads (a third option, a spinach gorgonzola salad, was unavailable because of the spinach scare, said the server--wasn't that settled months ago?) and nine pasta dishes--that's it. No appetizers, no soup and none of the chicken, veal, fish and other meat options are on the lunch menu.

I had plenty of time to analyze the abbreviated menu--I was running early, and Steve was running late--and the server was patient as I waited, spending my time snacking on the yummy bread and sipping a Coke. When Steve finally arrived, I ordered the baked ziti ($6.50), and he picked the fettuccini alfredo ($6.95). Unfortunately for Steve, he didn't get his beverage of choice: The server apologized that they were out of Diet Coke, of all things.

The dishes were delivered promptly, and Steve was impressed: Alfredo sauces tend to be too thick and goopy, or too thin, yet Ascolese's sauce was just right. My ziti, starring a pink sauce and three cheeses, was very good, although it was the weakest of the four main courses experienced on my two visits.

The fact that a very good dish was the weakest speaks volumes; so does the fact that the restaurant was out of so many menu items (the two touted appetizers and even Diet Coke) and seemed to miss so many of the little things. I sincerely hope Jersey Joe can overcome the Samaniego House jinx; he certainly has the food to do just that. But as the cliché goes ... the devil really is in the details.