Picture it: Saturday afternoon, around lunchtime. Downtown Tucson.
In your mind's eye, you're probably seeing ... well, not much of anything. There are lots of closed restaurants—places whose doors are only open for dinner on a non-workday like this—perhaps a few pedestrians, and maybe a tour group of some sort. And that's it.
That is, not much is going on until you get near Empire Pizza. There, you'll find a small patio—enclosed on all but one side—full of diners munching on slices of pizza as traffic on Congress Street occasionally zooms by. Inside the narrow building, you'll find a small food-prep/pizza-oven/cashier area; head into the back of the building, and you'll find a nice bar area, occupied by folks enjoying food and watching a game.
That's the way it was on a recent Saturday, when it became apparent to me that this little pizza joint is adding some much-needed pep to our slowly improving downtown. However, while Empire Pizza is unquestionably a welcome addition, the place has some room to improve, especially on the service front.
There's nothing particularly unusual about Empire Pizza's menu. You can have a slice of New York-style pizza ($2.50 for a cheese slice, on up to $3.50 for a specialty-pizza slice), or a whole pie ($13 to $17 and up for a 16-incher; $16 to $21.50 and up for a 20-incher). You can have a grinder sandwich or a hot sandwich ($6). You can have a salad ($5.50; add $1.50 if you want chicken). You can have hot or barbecue wings ($6 for 12, or $11 for 24), or garlic knots ($2 for 6, or $3.50 for 12). For dessert, you can have New York cheesecake ($4.50) or gelato ($3).
On our first visit—on a weekday night—Garrett and I decided to get a whole 20-inch pie. We chose the Mulberry St., which comes with pepperoni, Italian sausage, green pepper, onion and black olive ($21.50). To start, we figured we'd try a half-dozen garlic knots. As I ordered, Garrett headed for the bar area. (The patio was full, packed with people apparently participating in some sort of Republican gathering.) He claimed the only open table in the back, which had yet to be bussed. We later flagged down an employee and asked him if we could get the table cleaned; he grunted, but the young woman who was also working the cash register soon came back and serviced the table.
I decided a cocktail was in order, so I went to the bar and ordered a Jack Daniel's and Coke for Garrett, and a Maker's Mark and Coke for me; the bartender charged me $9, total, for the drinks. Not bad.
As we waited for the food to arrive, I looked over the receipt, and discovered that I'd been charged for a dozen garlic knots. When the same young woman who rang me up (and cleaned off the table) finally delivered a half-dozen knots, I pointed out that I'd been erroneously charged for a dozen.
"Oh, I owe you a dollar," she said, before going and retrieving a dollar.
Actually, the difference in price is $1.50. I decided not to argue.
In any case, the garlic knots were tasty, golf-ball-sized nuggets of dough. The garlic could have been applied more evenly, but that's a minor quibble. The warm marinara that was served with the knots was tangy, slightly spicy and completely delicious.
As we finished off the knots, our pizza was delivered. Each of the eight slices were huge—the perfect size to fold and eat, New York-style. The sauce was good, and the crust was adequate; my biggest complaint was that there could have been more toppings. On some pizza pieces, for example, there was only one slice of Italian sausage (which had been cut into long, thin pieces).
We returned a few days later on that aforementioned Saturday afternoon, this time with our friend Bryan. Bryan and I decided that pizza by the slice seemed like a good idea; I ordered a piece of the Jackson Heights (chicken, barbecue sauce, onion and green pepper, $3.50), while Bryan got one piece each of the Hawaiian ($2.75) and the Bensonhurst (pepperoni, Canadian bacon, Italian sausage and meatball, $3.50). Garrett was in the mood for a warm Italian grinder ($6).
We would have gladly sat outside in the beautiful weather, but all of the tables on the patio were again taken. So, off we went to the bar to wait for our food (and enjoy some cocktails).
While the service was still only so-so—they seem to have problems promptly cleaning off the tables in the bar—the food this time around was superb across the board; all three of our slices of pizza had the perfect amount of toppings. Meanwhile, Garrett relished his sandwich (with salami, pepperoni, provolone, onion, tomato, lettuce, hot peppers and Italian dressing). His only problem was the fact that he forgot to take the uneaten half with us when we left.
Empire Pizza is imperfect (who/what isn't?), for sure. But the food's good, and the place is unquestionably injecting some more life into downtown Tucson. I heartily endorse it.