Now That's Italian

The last remnant of the Gavi empire serves up tasty food in humongous portions

If it's true what they say about the French inventing restaurants, then it was the Italians who invented hospitality. Making sure people's appetites are satisfied and that every need is met is an integral part of dining Italian-style, and this is evident at Piazza Gavi.

The Gavi empire once included several trattorias scattered through the city and a couple of larger dining venues. They were all wildly popular, winning the Tucson Weekly's Best of Tucson® several years running. Today, Piazza Gavi is all that remains. But at this roomy, far-northeast-side restaurant, the Gavi reputation for good food—and plenty of it—continues.

Unlike the small places Gavi was noted for, this is a good-sized space with a sloping high ceiling, a large mural of vegetables, columns here and there, an open kitchen and a wrap-around patio (where no one was seated due to the hot weather). With great views of the nearby Catalinas, this area must be packed during winter-visitor season.

Service was superfriendly on both our visits, but not perfect: Points for the server who brought me a glass of soda water when I spilled part of my dinner on my top; points are deducted because we had to ask for Parmesan on both visits.

Gavi serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. At breakfast, you'll find a passel of omelets, frittatas and sweet stuff. The lunch and dinner menus overlap a bit, but lunch has sandwiches and lower prices on some items. There's also a killer happy hour with reduced prices on wine, beer and cocktails. If you order a drink, you can also get great deals on appetizers, including a 10-inch cheese pizza for a mere $3.

Options are plentiful in every category. There are four soups; 16 pizzas (plus panzerotti); 15 appetizers, with the bruschetta coming 11 different ways; more than 20 pasta sauces; and a choice of four pastas (spaghetti, fettuccini, mostaccioli and angel hair).

Our apps included the calamari New York-style ($11) and the Mozzarella Caprese ($8). If you think the price of the calamari is a bit steep, rest assured that the portion more than made up for any sticker shock. There was enough to satisfy four, maybe even six people. These were big rounds of calamari, as well. We brought home enough for two days of leftovers (which we ate cold, yum!). The squid had been breaded and then dressed with lots of spicy marinara sauce. All in all, it was a delightful change of pace from the usual way folks do calamari.

The Caprese was a complete surprise. I thought it would be served as a salad. Instead, four slices of fresh tomato were topped with breaded, deep-fried mozzarella, and then drizzled with a creamy dressing and more chopped tomatoes. The cheese was hot and crispy, the tomatoes cold and juicy. And the dressing added a creamy little punch.

We ordered two sandwiches from the lunch menu: steak with peppers and mushrooms ($10) and breaded pork ($12).

Again, the portions were gargantuan. Served on chewy and extra-large Italian rolls (as big as a small loaf of bread), both sandwiches delighted. If there were mushrooms on the steak sandwich, they weren't evident, but the roasted peppers (and chopped pickles) more than made up for any missing ingredients. The huge piece of pork was crispy and seasoned nicely. Peperoncini kicked it up a notch or two.

Both came with a farfalle pasta salad with chopped tomatoes, chopped basil and lots of Italian seasonings in a decent-enough dressing.

One thing that dinner has over lunch is the amuse-bouche. It comes to the table with crusty, sesame-seeded bread. There's a bit of that farfalle salad and a mix of red and green peppers cooked to almost melting in a red sauce.

Our pasta choice was fettuccini with the Bolognese sauce ($16 at dinner; $11 at lunch). From the house-specialty menu, we chose the Veal Milanese ($29). Each came with a choice of soup or salad. We ordered one salad with the house dressing and one soup, the stracciatelli.

The salad was good-sized for a dinner salad and filled with lettuce, tomatoes, onions and such. The soup, whose name translates to "little rags," consisted of a rich chicken broth that reminded me of the soup I ate in my Italian family's kitchens. It included egg-drop shreds, cheese tortellini and spinach. It was wonderful.

Although the veal was prepared in the same manner that the pork in the sandwich had been prepared, it took a different spin. Three slices had been cut paper thin, lightly breaded and cooked to the point where you barely needed a knife. The side of spaghetti came with the house marina, a nice version of this basic sauce.

The fettuccini Bolognese was outstanding. The creamy tomato sauce got better with each bite. And, again, the portion size was over the top. I swear there was a pound of pasta in the bowl. The leftovers lasted for two more meals.

We skipped dessert (all $6) at lunch but felt obligated to order it at dinner, despite being sated. Unfortunately, the cannoli wasn't up to the standard set by the rest of the food. When we cut it in half to share it, the middle was empty. The affogato worked, although I could've done without the huge amount of whipped cream on top.

When we return to Piazza Gavi—and we most definitely will—I think we'll try the happy hour pizza special, another pasta dish, the meatballs, a seafood entrée, the ...

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