Mucho Gusto

This Italian bistro shines with polished service and sublime sauces

One of the first marketing tips that I would give a restaurant owner concerns location. You must have street appeal, especially in the midst of a cluttered signage landscape like Oracle Road. The Northern Italian-inspired Gusto Ristorante, located on the northeast corner of Oracle and Rudasill Road, hides behind Putney's and seems squished between Satellite City and Gospel Music.

Perhaps it's the lack of a prominent location that made Gusto less than half-full on a recent Wednesday night, because it certainly wasn't the service. Tucsonans are frequently the recipients of hit-and-miss service, but at Gusto, it was attentive without being cloying, earnestly helpful and genuinely friendly. But what I particularly appreciated is that our waitress didn't have sudden amnesia. You know what I mean: that syndrome when the wait staff takes your order, and 10 minutes later, they deliver the food to the table, standing in a blur, trying to remember who ordered what.

I had the pleasure of dining with three friends--Rita Connelly, Jodi Goalstone and Lora Goldberg. Jodi, our wine expert, described the wine list as varied, surprisingly good and reasonably priced. We ordered a bottle of Ravenswood zinfandel ($24). Gusto's is not the kind of place that offers a particularly shaped wine glass based on the color of wine. Here, the wine was served in squat, old-world shaped glasses, the kind I remember my grandmother using on special occasions.

Unlike in many half-full restaurants, we were still able to have a conversation, even with Andrea Bocelli bellowing in the background. For starters, we first chose the portabella mushroom, ripe avocado, artichoke hearts and fresh poached jumbo shrimp appetizer, but our waitress said they were out of shrimp. Instead, we decided to share prosciutto purses ($6.50), lump crab cakes ($10) and the panzanella salad ($6.50).

The two crab cakes were crabby, just the way I like them, and served with a spiky chipotle-lime aioli--a nod to the Old Pueblo. Either we received a house salad ($5) with greens, nondescript croutons and creamy tarragon vinaigrette in error, or their rendition of panzanella (Italian bread salad) is nowhere near the real thing. Both Rita, whose maiden name is Postorino, and Jodi, who as an ex-New Yorker frequently ate in Little Italy, were disappointed. Panzanella is traditionally a peasant dish combining tomatoes, onions, basil and herbs with olive oil, vinegar and chunks of Italian bread. What makes the salad succeed is using tomatoes at their peak freshness. The purses proved to be eight honeydew melon balls wrapped in prosciutto sitting on a bed of greens. While the melon was certainly ripe, my preference would have been cantaloupe slices.

I forgot to mention that a generous slab of ciabatta bread arrived before the wine. The bread comes from the Bake House Bread Company and was accompanied by small terrines of aromatic kalamata olive tapenade and garlic pâté. I could take this along with a bottle of wine, a wedge of imported cheese and sliced apples, and have a picnic on "A" Mountain.

Our entrées were markedly more satisfying: Lora's rack of lamb with rosemary sage butter ($22) was the definitive favorite. The rosemary sage butter complemented the tender lamb's natural goodness. Although Lora ordered it medium-rare, it was served medium, which still worked for me.

Jodi's wild mushroom ravioli with brown butter sage sauce ($13) was a coveted choice. Cloud-like pillows filled with minced mushrooms basked in a light buttery herb sauce--again, another savory winner.

Although I liked the pork loin with fig and port sauce ($16.50), Rita thought the sauce was too sweet, but the pork was juicy and tender like pork should be. Unfortunately, Rita's scaloppine of veal with lemon, white wine, garlic and caper butter sauce ($18) was a disappointment, because the veal was tough.

Delicious roasted potatoes sprinkled with fresh herbs accompanied the entrées, along with the fresh vegetable of the day. When our server declared brussels sprouts, eyes rolled, so my dining companions opted for a mélange of baby zucchini and patty pan squash while I bit the brussels sprouts bullet--I actually like this unpopular vegetable.

Though I didn't have time to get to Gusto's for lunch, the menu includes sandwiches and panini, which the dinner menu does not. At dinner, light eaters might choose entrée salads ranging from $9 to $11. The wild Alaskan salmon with roasted potatoes, fresh asparagus and roma tomatoes over a bed of greens sounds really good.

Of course, we were full, but what's a restaurant review without dessert? We inquired about the affogato (vanilla gelato covered with a shot of espresso), but the server said they were out of gelato and would substitute ice cream instead. Passing, we chose to have a more authentic experience and opted for panna cotta with fresh berries. Again, it was not available. Panna cotta is a silky egg custard frequently flavored with caramel, perhaps the answer to an Italian flan. Finally, we chose two house-made desserts--chocolate tiramisu ($5) and chocolate amaretti cake ($5) plus two coffees.

Lora loved the chocolate tiramisu, but I thought it was overly sweet. The tiramisu mirrored a French mousse or Swiss pastry. Rita and I shared the dense chocolate amaretti cake made from crisp macaroons. The allure was that it lacked sweetness though radiated a bittersweet bite zapped with orange essence, somehow reminding me of eating chocolate orange sticks on Passovers from years past. (Food evokes weird memories.)

Owners Bob and Annie Lee (Annie is also the pastry chef) left their Rockway Beach, N.Y., deli for Tucson's more temperate climes. Our suggestion to the Lees is to pare down the ambitious menu in order to focus on favorites, and to put signage closer to the street. And to the eating public: Support this local mom-and-pop restaurant that beams with continental flavor and soulfulness.

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