Joys of Simplicity

Caffe Torino offers splendid Italian food—but the service and speed may disappoint you

Friends, family and co-workers are always asking me for recommendations on where they should take out-of-town guests to dine. Most recently, a co-worker asked about a good Italian restaurant—and I was surprised to realize that I had few ideas for him.

Well, Caffe Torino, at the corner of La Cañada Drive and Lambert Lane in Oro Valley, gives me one more Italian restaurant to add to my short list—because the restaurant serves some of the best Italian food I've had in Tucson in the last decade, despite some service issues.

The most striking thing about the café is the separation between the casual breakfast and lunch area, and the beautifully decorated dinner space. The more-casual space is bright and welcoming, with festive artwork on the walls; the dinner space is ornate and rich, with warm, dark tones and a beautiful bar space. They make use of their relatively small space well, and incorporate the abundant wine collection into the décor.

The café is a welcome departure from the super-cheesy, overly sauced Italian food that plagues most of our fair city. Breakfast choices are broad, ranging from typical offerings like pancakes ($4.25 to $5.25) and eggs Benedict ($9.25) to the more adventurous uova pizzaiola ($9.50), a crusty piece of airy ciabatta bread smothered in runny eggs, Italian sausage and tangy red sauce; or the smoked salmon omelet ($10), which was like a traditional lox breakfast with smoked salmon, capers and red onions, wrapped up in a lovely blanket of Havarti and scrambled eggs.

All of the breakfast entrées come with a choice of potatoes, fresh fruit or tomatoes, and most come with a choice of ever-changing bread selections. The potatoes were just a touch under-seasoned, but that was easily corrected with a little salt. The ciabatta toast was obviously freshly made and delicious.

The only complaint I had about breakfast wasn't food-related; it was that our server seemed absent-minded, forgetting orange juice ($2.25), refills of coffee ($2.50), condiments and the check. She even forgot to take our order; another server noticed and took care of us.

Hours on the door are listed as Monday through Saturday, from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., for breakfast and lunch, and 5 p.m. to the ever-dubious "close" for dinner—so we were disappointed when we arrived at 6:30 p.m. on a Monday night, after a 45-minute drive, to find that Caffe Torino is now closed for dinner on Mondays. With no obvious website to check, this is something that really should be corrected.

Our second attempt at a dinner visit was thankfully successful—and was again near-perfect on the food side of things.

The wine list is short, but includes a nice mix of both West Coast and Italian wines, and is especially robust in reds. Ted ordered a glass of Conti Zecca Donna Marzia Primitivo ($9), which was served at just the right temperature; it was a nice, mild, fruity wine.

Though the antipasto plate ($14) looked quite tempting as an appetizer, we opted instead for the steamed mussels in pomodoro sauce with garlic bread ($10). The restaurant was bustling, and our food was quite delayed coming out of the tiny two-man kitchen. When they finally arrived, the mussels were plump and not overcooked, but the pomodoro sauce tended toward the bland side, and certainly wasn't spicy, as described on the menu.

The entrées more than made up for the missteps with the appetizer. My veal scaloppini in piccata sauce with linguini ($24) was perfectly tender, and not overly salty, as many piccata dishes tend to be. Ted's pork shank, prepared in the style of ossobuco and served over risotto ($23), was nothing short of brilliant. The gigantic braised pork shank was proudly presented on top of a heap of creamy risotto and was smothered in a variety of mushrooms and white-wine sauce. The pork was so tender that a knife wasn't even needed to remove it from the bone. I think I ended up eating as much from his plate as I did from my own.

Entrée portions are beyond generous, bordering on ridiculous, but we still tried to find room for dessert at the end of the meal. The service throughout our dinner, again, was a bit absent-minded (as well as just plain absent at times); we sat with plates, finished eating, for nearly 20 minutes before a busser finally came by and offered to box up our leftovers.

We were finally able to order dessert—and I was somewhat surprised at the lack of traditional Italian desserts. I was hoping for some of the tasty-looking sorbet that someone at the table next to us had ordered, but it was not presented as an option to us. We settled on a crème brûlée ($7), also a generous portion, which was rich and velvety.

The kitchen at Caffe Torino is offering artfully prepared food with an obvious attention to detail. The front-of-the house staff needs to match that intensity and passion.

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