Second Chance

San Remo's Latest Incarnation Is A Sheer Delight For Italian Dining Fans.

By Rebecca Cook

FOR YEARS I'VE been hearing about San Remo, a fine-dining establishment on the far east side of town. Intriguingly, none of the stories has ever been quite the same.

First there was the tale of a staid and somewhat stuffy venue with inherently mediocre food at caviar prices. Then came a fascinating transformation into a place of vast global tastes where the glory that was Rome shared the plate with the mysteries of the Orient. Most recently there have been rumors that San Remo has become one of Tucson's most authentic purveyors of Italian cuisine.

Chow Will the real San Remo please stand up?

As it turns out, San Remo is indeed in the throes of a fresh incarnation, and although I wasn't fortunate enough to eat there under its former guises, it's hard to imagine they could have been more delightfully delicious than this latest endeavor.

This time co-owners Tony DiGuardia and Susan Benaron, former owners of Tony's New York-Style Italian Deli on East 22nd Street, are at the helm, and dining on the delicacies that pour out of their new kitchen is a deeply satisfying affair.

"This is the restaurant we always wanted to have," DiGuardia is overheard saying to a customer while he's on a routine foray through the dining room to assess his customers' satisfaction.

DiGuardia adds that he watched this particular space come and go once, and when it appeared on the market a second time, decided opportunity might not keep knocking indefinitely.

San Remo operates out of a small converted home just off of Tanque Verde and Camino Principal roads. The dining room is small and cozy--it can accommodate about 40 diners--and the low ceilings, white linen tablecloths and burgundy upholstered furniture give the space a retro high-class feel.

Although the decor may be quite formal, there is nothing pretentious about the food, which is down-home wonderful.

DiGuardia and Benaron understand that simplicity in matters of Italian cooking translates into outright elegance in terms of quality and taste. Nowhere is this more obvious than when the kitchen invokes the spirit of Sicily and Southern Italy. Seafood may not dominate the menu, but the treatment of shrimp, mussels, calamari and clams is a wonder to behold.

Meals begin at San Remo with a basket of garlic bread, toasted slices of sesame-seed-crusted Italian bread generously slathered with butter and plenty of freshly minced garlic. This is fun to nibble on all by itself, but in addition, provides excellent assistance for San Remo's other dishes, guaranteeing that every drop of those luscious sauces can be sopped up with ease.

A graceful beginning to our meal was the spicy shrimp scampi ($6.95), which consisted of moderately-sized crustaceans sautéed in an intoxicating mingling of white wine, garlic, lemon and chopped peperoncini. The buttery tang of the lemon was exquisite and the peperoncini added an enjoyable kick to the dish. Once the shrimp were consumed, the extra sauce made a wonderful new topping for the garlic bread. (Yes, I know there's an overwhelming theme of garlic happening here, but what did you expect? It's ITALIAN!)

San Remo's menu is fairly comprehensive--name just about any of your favorite Italian dishes and you'll more than likely find them here. There's plenty of pasta, as well as a bevy of veal and chicken dishes and a few entrées featuring pork. Vegetarians will be pleased their food preferences have not been forgotten, and along with a handful of offerings, a note on the bottom of the menu assures diners that many of San Remo's specialties can be prepared without meat or dairy products.

On a recent visit our main dish choices consisted of the veal marsala ($15.95) and the linguini with East Coast mussels marinara ($14.95).

Veal marsala is a sinful pleasure that I allow myself only a few times in a decade. But every once in awhile I succumb to the temptation to order this classic dish, and, I must say, San Remo's version is worth every ounce of remorse.

It's a thin, tender, platter-sized portion of ethereally breaded veal sautéed and topped with an ambrosial sauce made with the spicy-sweetness of Marsala wine along with olive oil, minced onions and--you guessed it--garlic. Why something so deceptively simple should taste this delicious, I have no idea, but it was absolutely scrumptious.

The linguini with mussels marinara was yet another marvel. The mussels were so enormous I suspected they had some kind of overactive glandular condition. DiGuardia reassured me this was fairly typical for green-lip mussels, especially the ones he sought out for his restaurant.

As for the marinara sauce, it was sensational, so far removed from any name-brand, canned variety it's not even worth mentioning them in the same breath. More like a fine puree than a sauce, San Remo's marinara is permeated with a dense tomato opulence and a supporting cast of minced onion, garlic and just enough red pepper to give it the requisite nip.

Dessert selections at San Remo are modest but provide ample opportunity to slake that end-of-the-meal sweet craving.

Cannoli and tiramisu can always be found on the menu, as well as a daily homemade feature. The night we visited, the special was an exceptionally textured and flavored mocha espresso cheesecake ($2.95), which perfectly hit the spot.

Forget everything you've heard about San Remo in the past and jot this note down for 1997: superb Italian food, fine dining experience, fairly moderate prices. Need I say more? TW

Photo by Dominic Oldershaw

San Remo. 2210 N. Indian Ruins Road. 722-8666. Open 4 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 4 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 4 to 9 p.m. Sunday. Closed Mondays. Beer and wine. V, MC, AMEX, checks. Menu items: $3.95-$17.95.

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