The Family Secret

FioRito's Cherished Recipes Make It A Favorite.

WHY IS IT that you can tell a really good restaurant when you're still in the parking lot? Perhaps it is the lazy, drifting waft of wood smoke or roasting meats, or maybe the tell-tale line out the door. Despite its antiquated sign and humble abode, when you pull into the FioRito's parking lot and catch that first tantalizing whiff of sizzling garlic and bubbling marinara, you just know--this is going to be good.

Whether you dined at FioRito's as a kid with your folks or this is your very first visit, from the minute you enter, you step back into the days when Louis Prima snapped out a beat, martini in hand. In those days, everyone tucked paper napkins in at the collar, hunkered over huge bowls of pasta and ate with abandon. Even if you were just old enough to peer over the edge of the table, you knew something good was going on.

That's the seductive hook of nostalgia; without any pretense, hype or façade, you're transported back to an era when life was slower, meals leisurely, and we lived in a better world.

From the very first page, the menu announces its intent to celebrate the past with its homage to the original owners, Mary Lou and Vern Lowe. For 24 years, FioRito's built a solid reputation, ensconcing itself as a popular neighborhood fixture. When the Lowes decided to retire, the indefatigable Tess O'Shea (formerly of Barrio and Presidio) and new partner Kalyn Stith scooped up the restaurant.

Wisely, they left the tried and true alone. If you liked FioRito's before, you'll still find most of the original sauces and pizzas. Still, we appreciate the stylish touches that O'Shea brings wherever she travels. Whether it's her signature tasteful and classy music or the elegant touch of a well appointed bar, her vision always pulls a restaurant together. This time, her good fortune has delivered her the talented chef Jack Tate (formerly of Firecracker). All told, the newest version of FioRito's is a winner.

To start, we ordered the fried calamari ($5.75). A nicely portioned appetizer, these slices were slender, not the large elastic-bandage type found in some restaurants that leave you with a bulging mouthful of muscle. These were tender, ring-sized and fried until crispy, served with cocktail sauce and lemon wedges. We made short work of our order and moved on to an old FioRito's standard, pizza.

As the menu points out, when the Lowes decided to retire, someone had to take over this neighborhood restaurant, or where would we get our pizza? Fortunately, the pizzas have retained their flair. Six specialty pizzas are offered, covering the gamut from strictly veggie to a white pie. If none of the choices please you, you can assemble your own from a customized list of ingredients that cover a range of meats, vegetables, fruit, fresh spices and sauces.

We ordered a customized deep-dish pizza topped with prosciutto, mushrooms, black olives and roasted red peppers ($12.55). Served on a quaint old-fashioned table stand, this pizza arrived piping hot. The toppings were generous, the cheese hot and bubbly, and the crust gave in with a delicate crunch. This is easily some of the best pizza served in Tucson.

There are plenty of appetizers, so take your time to sample, but don't miss the mussels. On the night we dined, the mussels were New Zealand Green Lips. Although they were slightly tough (probably frozen), the preparation, an intoxicating brodo of garlic and white wine, was outstanding. Infused with Roma tomatoes and fresh herbs (oregano, basil and thyme), the balance of flavors was more than a little heady. Although we had to request bread, when it arrived we ate with relish and fought over the final morsels.

There are many entrées to choose from, ranging from traditional Italian dinners to pasta plates to specialties. We chose the Shrimp Venetia ($16), a light dish that doesn't sacrifice complexity just because it is delicate. Served on bow tie pasta, the shrimp are plumped up in an elegant Gorgonzola cream sauce, graced with pine nuts and a smattering of tomato. The flavors blend in this dish in a satisfying fashion. A difficult balance to pull off, this dish showcases Chef Tate's ability to trust pure and simple flavors.

The Eggplant Parmigiana ($13) will satisfy vegetarians and carnivores alike. These cutlets of eggplant are thick, fleshy, baked and then grilled to a tender turn, just long enough to impart a smoky flavor. Every bite offered up a succulent mouthful without a trace of bitterness. Served on a large plate of linguine, sauced with a marinara and garnished with shaved Parmesan, this is a dish I plan to revisit often.

So many of the pastas are tempting, but we succumbed to the linguine with Italian sausage ($14). This is the kind of hearty comfort food that your grandmother would whip up for you if she were Italian. A straightforward heap of linguine sauced with marinara and festooned with mushrooms and hunks of Italian sausage, this plate could easily feed two. My favorite touch was the fresh baby spinach leaves folded in moments before the plate arrived at the table, so the leaves were meltingly tender and still flavorful. This is some serious eating and, for the asking price, an excellent bargain.

Just when we couldn't fit in another bite, the waitress realized she had overlooked our order of Tuscan Antipasto ($12). As the restaurant was very busy, it was an understandable error, and she was gracious enough to inquire if we still wished to sample the dish. Given the fact that everything we tasted was a solid win, we decided to dine in the European fashion, finishing our meal with salad. We also noted and appreciated that the flustered server didn't try to pass the blame on to the kitchen or make excuses. She apologized for her oversight and placed a priority order.

When we were ready, the antipasto was whisked to the table, plate chilled. This platter is big-hearted: rolled prosciutto, cappicolla, salami rolled with mascarpone, a whole roasted garlic, marinated red and yellow peppers, artichokes, mozzarella, provolone and crostini. Even the greens underneath were fresh and well dressed. The combination of flavors and textures meshed so well, it was easy to keep nibbling, chatting, and stretching the evening out beyond normal dining limits into the realm of pure luxury.

Desserts are limited but worth investigating. We tried the tiramisu ($5), which is not made in-house. Whether or not it was intentional, the tiramisu was icy cold and slightly frozen in the center. While tiramisu is a widely translated dish, it is true that even in Italy it is occasionally served slightly frozen, an idiosyncratic matter of taste. Here, if it was an accident, it was a happy one. We found the tiramisu to be excellent, and a light way to end the meal.

Alas, the same cannot be said of Mary Lou's Cannoli ($5). We found the pastry shell impenetrable, indicating a tough, overworked dough. The rum-flavored filling carried a hint of citrus and random chocolate chips, but didn't really rise up as a memorable dessert. Still, after so many fully realized dishes, it was almost a relief to find a clinker in the lot. In fact, we felt a little sorry for it.

In a perfect world, I could keep this little gem just tucked away for a few cherished friends and myself. No doubt the word will get out. For the homey atmosphere, reasonable pricing, and just plain fun, FioRito's is going to flourish for a long time to come.

But, please, be choosy who you let in on our little secret. Take only the most deserving and be discreet. As enticing as the scents outside FioRito's door may be, I'd hate to have to wait in the parking lot for my favorite table. But if that's what it takes, I'll head up the line.

FioRito's. 2702 E. Grant Road. 325-6193. Serving Monday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday through Sunday, 4:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. V, MC, Am Ex, Disc, DC, checks. Menu items: $3-$18.
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