Love, Italian-Style

Ragazzi serves up fine fare.

There are some things in life you just can't fake: knowing how to sing opera, multiple orgasms, cooking Italian food. The reason for this is that one shouldn't tamper with the evidence, that glimpse that reveals something truly greater than us exists. In short, it is a crime against beauty.

When Vivace closed its doors and moved shop over to St. Philip's plaza, few regrets were heard. Mostly because Vivace inherited a much larger venue. Perhaps those who frequent Crossroads Festival Plaza missed their old haunt, but the new Vivace was still within reasonable distance. Little was mentioned in the culinary world when Ragazzi's opened the door in the old Vivace space this past July. Oh, perhaps someone said, "Lordy, not another Italian restaurant," but that was about it.

"Oh Lordy" is right, and it should be said on bended knee, with bowed head and in hushed and reverent tones, because Ragazzi is bonafide.

The culinary team of Juan Herrera and Jose Zavala may have taken the circuitous route to Tucson, but we are most grateful for the time they spent studying in northern Italy. Their training shows in every aspect of the restaurant, and much pleasure is to be found here.

Should you choose to begin with the Prosciutto con Fichi al Caramello (sweet prosciutto di Parma with caramelized, dried black mission figs--$9), you will know you have arrived at a worthy destination. This is a dish that doesn't get in the way of its ingredients. The flavors are simple: a quality, paper-thin, tender proscuiutto, drizzled with fruity extra-virgin olive oil, and centered on the rich cakey flavor of dried fig. Naturally one wishes for fresh figs, but then one self-corrects this hubristic little thought. We all know what can happen when you fly too close to the sun.

If you've never tried freshly made ravioli with pasta stretched so thin as to be almost translucent, then life still holds a surprise or two for you. Here, the Ravioli della Casa ($12.75) will arrive steaming hot, with your choice of sauces, a straightforward marinara or osso bucco, or perhaps just drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil. We tried ravioli portobello, and the filling had been chopped so fine that the mushrooms were sautéed until their flavor intensified, taking on deep baritone notes of earthiness, a satisfying foil for tender pasta. Study them closely and you will see these were cut by hand--the ravioli are different sizes, some leaning a bit to one side or appearing not quite square. Perhaps it is true that perfection can smile back at you in imperfection.

The Calamare Fritti (deep-fried calamari--$9) is a generous tumble of calamari flashed to a crisp and served with a piping hot marinara. One could stop right here and bask in the warmth of such delightful flavors and careful presentations. Perhaps you'll want to try the lovely skewers of grilled scallops and prawns or the house-made gnocchi. Maybe you'll linger with the gratinéed asparagus with prosciutto and parmigiano or the vine-ripened tomatoes with fresh mozzarella, basil, olives and olive oil. You should, however, launch yourself into the world of entrées.

In many restaurants, the small plates hold so many delights, and then the entrées turn into a large misstep, a mistake. I've had countless meals where had I but stopped at the appetizers, delightful in their diminutive declarations and their concentrated flavors, the meal would have been lovely. I'm not sure why entrées signal a larger risk, an unwieldy combination of flavors, but fear not here. At Ragazzi, the entrées are just a more expansive version of their slighter brethren.

For example, the Branzino al Forno con Funghi Misti ($19.75). To take a perfectly humble fresh filet of sea bass and render it so gloriously requires a sure touch. Dusted in simple seasonings and roasted until the sweet flavors of the fish rush forward, until just the edges of the fish crisp golden brown, takes a particular attention to detail and experienced technique. Shiitake mushrooms, sautéed until just melting, are carefully laid over the top. Served with a tender wedge of polenta and dressed with marinara, this plate was practically perfect.

The Petto di Pollo con Prosciutto e Formaggio ($18.50) is an honest plate. Two chicken breasts have been rolled and stuffed with prosciutto, parmesan and sage leaf. Roasted until tender, the chicken is rich and intense in its flavors. The vegetables (red peppers, zucchini, potato), roasted until just caramelized, finish the range of flavors. Served with a side of farfalle, this dish is careful to be simple with its pairings in a satisfying fashion.

Spiedini di Maiale alla Pancetta e Verdure ($18.50) didn't particularly impress with its visual presentation, but the happy, sweet flavors of the pork and the grilled, skewered vegetables worked. The potatoes had truly been whipped into submission, but the sunny, golden flavors of the parmesan were forgiving.

Desserts are made in house and provide further evidence that the kitchen is working with a deft and sure hand. The tiramisu was a tender, fresh wedge of the classic combination: whipped cream, marscapone, chocolate, espresso and three layers of feather-light cake. The house-made flan, simple and creamy, caramelized just at the edges, provided a chaste and refreshing dessert.

Throughout the meal the service was charming, understated yet attentive. Both our servers were fluent in Spanish and Italian and it was fun to patch together different languages to make requests known. Some might find this off-putting, but we found the service to be exceptional: confident without being pretentious, attentive without being obtrusive, and genuinely friendly.

Ragazzi feels like those restaurants one often frequents in larger cities, where there is no air of pretense, just the assurance that standards will be met, a well-prepared meal will be had, and the experience will be enjoyable. Whether you're listening to Louis Prima, Frank Sinatra or the ethereal strains of Callas or Caruso, the ambiance at Ragazzi is relaxed and comforting. Perhaps this is because the staff operates with the ease that comes only with self-assurance and a certain quiet delight in doing things right.

But take not my word for it. Go forth yourself, and remember ye, kneel before greatness. Diggeth deep into thy wallet. And partaketh of splendid, beauteous things.

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