Tucson's Little Italy

Stopani's offers a chance to get your fill of marinara, hang with the locals and hear some Sinatra.

If you are very lucky, at some point in your life you've lived near a restaurant that was your neighborhood joint. This wasn't necessarily a good restaurant, but it was where you went when you didn't feel like cooking or you had drop-in guests, or perhaps you just wanted to spend a moment or two alone. When you walked in the door you knew at least one or two people on the staff or lounging at tables, and they knew you. Most likely, you didn't need a menu. Possibly, the staff wouldn't even exchange words with you, they just brought you what they knew you would want. If you were very lucky, the food was good. But oddly, that isn't necessarily a requirement for a good neighborhood hang. It's nice if it works out that way (and in many big cities it usually does) but I have spent long stretches of my life living off the beaten trail, when it became more important to have a place to go than to have the best meal of my life.

Well, they say that location is everything. It certainly can shape our expectations. One expects a little bit more from a restaurant that inhabits a fancier ZIP code than say, a small Italian restaurant on 22nd Street. Actually, you might not have even known that there was an Italian restaurant down on 22nd Street, but along a particularly barren and hostile stretch, a loopy row of Christmas lights beckons. And there, lost among the Jiffy Lube, tire stores and gritty strip malls, is a little family owned Italian restaurant called Stopani's.

Step in the door and strains of Sinatra tug you in. On the wall, pictures of the New York City skyline and an extensive homage to Marilyn Monroe give the restaurant an unapologetic, masculine feel. This restaurant has character. No doubt about it.

Still, the tables are set, candles flicker and little glass pepper shakers of chile flakes or Parmesan are parked on each table. The staff is friendly. The owner, Chuck, is probably hovering about somewhere, tending bar, visiting with customers, and that's when you know--you've entered into someone's neighborhood joint, even if it isn't yours. So it must be taken as such. You don't really have much of a choice since it insistently refuses to be anything else.

We ordered loosely from the menu, more interested in the vibe of the place, and so we weren't disappointed by the fare.

A Caesar salad for two was a large platter of mostly iceberg lettuce tossed with faint vinaigrette. No powerhouse kiss of lemon, anchovy and garlic here. No, this was a light and passive Caesar dusted with some Parmesan that hadn't been near the wheel for a long time, and crowned with some croutons. An unassuming plate.

Entrees followed suit. Stopani's homemade lasagna was straightforward lasagna: one layer of ricotta with herbs and another layer of meat. A spinach lasagna is available as well. The lasagna had been warmed thoroughly and lathered in marinara. While nobody rose up and belted out the hallelujah chorus, it was edible lasagna.

The eggplant Parmesan was modest eggplant slices breaded and deep-fried, then baked in a marinara sauce. Sigh. Served with a side of linguine, one who didn't dearly love the noble eggplant might meet this with gladness in the heart, but for fans, it probably doesn't showcase the eggplant's finer virtues.

As in any many Italian restaurants, marinara shows up on the menu--a lot. The seafood marinara was ordered at our server's hearty recommendation. A hearty bowl of linguine studded with scallops, shrimp and crab (with a k) awash in the by now familiar marinara. A hearty, ample serving, this is portioned for a large appetite.

Wanting a bit of respite from tomato, we ordered a white pizza. In Italy I once had a slice of white pizza (simple cheeses, garlic, extra virgin olive oil) that ended up being a near religious experience. I didn't hold out high hopes, and so I wasn't disappointed. A thin crust, swimming in cheese pizza kept us nibbling for a spell.

By this time the allure of Stopani's had kind of sunk in. We realized we were enjoying ourselves most because it let us hover at the edges of a micro-community. Regulars dropped in and cracked jokes with the bar staff or sat and had their bowl of pasta, then left.

The staff seemed cheerful and efficient. Clearly the kitchen wasn't overstaffed and so there was a lag between courses that seemed unnecessarily long. The servers didn't seem apologetic or overly concerned so we drew the conclusion that this is the natural pace of things at Stopani's.

Dessert options were limited. We decided to try the in-house desserts: cannoli and tiramisu. The tiramisu was a rustic interpretation of a classic dish: short and squat, an almost pudding like bottom, soaked in liqueur and a dense layer of cake was straight and to the point. The cannoli was odd, the texture slightly lumpy, and the cream dotted with chocolate chips didn't favorably impress.

But no matter, we still lingered over coffee, enjoying an intimate glimpse into other people's neighborhood life. Although this restaurant is an oddity in terms of its location, it does its level best to provide a quirky little dimly lit cliché of an Italian restaurant. Better yet, it succeeds. From the music to the décor, you'll forget all about the fact that you're in Tucson. At all.

Saturday nights bring with them jazz in the lounge area. After 10, the table settings come off and the fabulous Paul Elia takes over, belting out his Sinatra show. Given the long blast of summer nights coming up, what could be better than to sit in the cool dark lounge, listen to the croonings of one of the world's best Sinatra knock-offs? A glass of wine, a far-off monsoon, a flickering candle ... no matter that you're in the heart of South Central. You'd never know it. For a moment you'll have joined a life far away from the one you call your own.