Bright, late afternoon light beams in through the wide windows, illuminating the orders of food on the pass line. An open kitchen allows patrons to see how each dish is carefully constructed. A muffolatta panini, piled high with thinly sliced cold cuts and a rich pesto, is delivered to a man celebrating his 100th birthday. Customers linger over post lunch coffee and tiramisu soaked in rum and espresso. This is just a day in the life of the homey yet sumptuous Italian restaurant Trattoria Pina.
"Originally, I did not want to get into the restaurant business," said owner Pina Colosimo, "but I am so glad that I did."
In fact, Colosimo's parents insisted, at first, that she stay away from the family business. Running a successful and busy eatery is hard work, and they should know. Her folks, Cosmo and Nana, ran DaVinci's on Ft. Lowell Road for over 28 years and her uncle owned Michelangelo's, which opened back in 1972. To say the least, owning an Italian-inspired restaurant is in her blood and she just couldn't stay away, even though she tried.
"They wanted me to enjoy my life, work a nine to five job and not have to live in a restaurant," Colosimo said. "But after five years in the corporate world I knew that I wanted to open my own place."
With the help of her husband, Fedele, who was also thrown into the chaotic world of the restaurant industry by becoming chef, they found a perfect spot on the corner of Swan and Sunrise and in 1993 Trattoria Pina opened. Twenty-three years later, we are so glad she decided to be the rebel.
Some call Trattoria Pina a "hidden gem" even though it is hiding in plain sight. A vivid yellow awning looms over the heavy wood front doors, which are usually open, inviting all to step inside. Once there, you know you are in for something special. The restaurant itself is quietly upscale, but extremely comfortable which absolutely reflects the cuisine. Soft, warm, open, subtle yet filled with activity and the smiles of the servers, chef and, yes, owner, who can usually be found at the host stand greeting customers and showing them to their table.
What has also kept Trattoria Pina going strong for so many years is its consistency. For over two decades the menu has changed very little but continues to keep up with the times. Most of the items you will find and eventually eat are made fresh in house every day. The polenta is rich and firm yet supple enough to soak up the house all'arrabiata sauce that, although creamy, has a distinct spicy kick to it. It is featured best in the Polenta alla Griglia dish ($23) which comes equipped with a robust marinated chicken breast, two huge Italian sausage links that deliver a vibrant snap followed by intense flavor accompanied by grilled vegetables and a whole roasted garlic bulb. The focaccia, which has the feel and flavor of butter, is made in-house with a light olive oil and pairs perfect with the Tutto Mare ($28), a steaming generous bowl of mussels, salmon, scallops and shrimp served in a fiery marinara sauce over spaghetti. The Caprese ($11) is one of the best in Tucson if not anywhere. Plump seasonal tomatoes and savory, peppery basil from local farms served with homemade mozzarella and a drizzle of olive oil.
Leave some space for dessert because their Pope's Pillow creation is, well, quite divine. It is a tower of strawberries and fresh cream between light yet decadent puff pastries. Along with other sweet temptations, it is yet another reason the restaurant has thrived for so long.
And if you think after all of these years Colosimo's father has retired, well all we can say is sei pazzo! At 80 years old, he comes in everyday and makes the desserts, the biscotti and the gnocchi. The gnocchi. Oh, the gnocchi. Obviously made with care and love, these mini moons of Cosmo's are as old school as they come but far beyond the whims of up and coming chefs. Quite simply, you almost don't need a sauce or accompaniment for these rustic potato drops.
"He likes to remind me each day that he has retired right before he gets to work," said Colosimo with a laugh. "The restaurant is our livelihood and it's hard work, just as my parents warned me, but thanks to our wonderful customers this place feels like home. Every day is a blessing because we live and breathe Tucson.".