Italian Insurgence

Vivande Looms Large In The Shadow Of Gavi.

By Rebecca Cook

WHEN YOU OPEN a new Italian restaurant right next to one of this town's most popular ristorantes, you'd better steel yourself for the inevitable comparisons. But, also, considering the venerable veteran has customers literally tumbling out the front door on weekend nights, you know you can at least count on catching some of the impatient overflow.

But here's the million-dollar question: Having once dined at your establishment, will these unexpected diners come back, or will they opt instead for the place constantly in demand next door?

Chow Look out Gavi--Vivande, the new kid on the block at Broadway and Pantano, seems to be holding its own among the pasta-loving souls of Tucson's east side. The novice's task is hardly envious: match up admirably against one of the best, or risk disappearing into the sunset. So, how's it going?

To start, Vivande has to convince people they really are open for business. Don't be put off by the chain-link fencing and boarding along one side of the new restaurant (perhaps the site of a future patio?). The main entrance is actually off Pantano Road, rather than looking out towards Broadway like all the other strip-mall establishments.

Once inside, the space reveals impressive, clean, graceful interior lines, classic black-and-white design and soft lighting, giving the room a comfy, warm feel. The crooning tenor of an Italian vocalist fills the room, the staff is welcoming and accommodating, and wonderful aromas emanate from the kitchen. Yes indeedy, this will definitely do.

Vivande's menu contains nothing surprising or unfamiliar; rather, the order of the day is a comprehensive listing of every imaginable Italian favorite. Here you'll find spaghetti, rigatoni and penne served with a kaleidoscope of mouth-watering sauces (marinara with or without meatballs or mushrooms, meat, garlic butter, Italian sausage or carbonara); fettuccine with ham, broccoli and Alfredo sauce; linguine with red or white clam sauce; and ravioli, tortellini, lasagna, cannelloni, manicotti, stuffed shells and eggplant parmigiana. Chicken and veal come in a variety of preparations, including marsala, piccata, parmigiana, Florentine and cacciatore and shrimp, mussels and calamari make appearances sauced in marinara and scampi butter. And to top it all off, there's pizza. Working your way through the menu and making a decision about what to order is no small task.

Appetizers (antipasti in the lingo of the trade) could be breaded mozzarella cheese sticks served with marinara sauce, a platter of fried calamari or a bowl of steamed mussels or clams. We chose to nibble on an order of Vivande's bruschetta, thinking that a few discreet slices of bread topped with olive oil and tomatoes wouldn't destroy our appetites for bigger and better things.

What appeared to be a modest eight- or nine-inch pizza serving of bread was brought to our table, toasted, drizzled with olive oil and thoroughly rubbed with fresh garlic, then additionally topped with a formidable crown of coarsely chopped fresh tomatoes and basil. With a fork and a glass of Chianti, this dish would easily comprise a complete meal for the humble diner; but we partook of this marvelous dish with restraint due to the forthcoming entrées (served with soup or salad).

What we sampled was quite delicious: The pervasive garlic crunch and gentle brushing of olive oil were heavenly, and the tomatoes and basil consummately fresh, although the tomatoes could have benefited from an extra day or two to ripen.

The house salad, which we chose over a tempting cup of pasta fagioli soup, was probably the weakest link in our meal. The predominant green in the mix was iceberg, although there were a few leaves of green and red thrown in for added intrigue alongside a wedge of tomato, sliced red onion, cucumber and a pepperoncini. The house Italian vinaigrette was so acidic it bordered on inedible; it escaped by a narrow margin due to an infusion of oregano, thyme and basil. Next time, we'll go with the soup.

Any notion of disappointment was soon dispelled, however, when platters of sizzling and aromatic food were set before us. Eggplant parmigiana served with pasta, and an order of veal Florentine topped our agenda that evening, along with a simple cheese pizza hot from the oven.

So many things can go wrong with the simplest of dishes. For example, eggplant parmigiana has the potential for unmitigated disaster, beginning with a vegetable overcooked to putrid pulp and often concluding with a coating so heavy and greasy it makes you wonder why you ever gave up meat. Vivande evades all these pitfalls and presents tender (never mushy) slices of eggplant, lightly and crisply breaded (never oily), topped with a modest portion of spicy marinara sauce and a generous grating of mozzarella. For once, the purple veggie held court rather than being smothered by oceans of sauce or entombed within a thick, fried casing. Vivande trusts that if you ordered eggplant parmigiana, you won't mind tasting the primary ingredient.

The restaurant's marinara probably won't be to everyone's liking, but it's undeniably enticing. Its singular blend of flavors seems to change slightly with each bite, making the process of identifying the various ingredients a challenging game. Was that a hint celery seed right there? A little rosemary perhaps? Freshly ground cloves?

The veal Florentine, a breaded veal cutlet topped with chopped spinach, melted kasseri cheese and a whisper of white wine sauce, was tasty enough, although I found the hefty breading unappealing and vaguely distracting. The meat was moist and tender, the cheese nicely tangy and the spinach devoid of sinewy strands. Still, it didn't quite add up to greatness, which I count on to help alleviate those pangs of veal guilt.

The cheese pizza was unabashedly a kid-pleaser: yeasty, puffy crust topped with a modicum of red sauce and mounds of melted and browned mozzarella cheese. Specialty toppings of shrimp, Canadian bacon, anchovies, meatballs, gyro meat, sun-dried tomatoes, feta cheese and artichokes can be added as well as more familiar items such as pepperoni and mushrooms.

If the kids want to branch out and try something other than pizza, Vivande has a brief bambini menu, which gives children under 12 a choice of spaghetti, rigatoni or penne ziti served with marinara, meat sauce, garlic butter or Alfredo sauce, or meat or cheese ravioli. Meatballs or Italian sausage can be added to any of these dishes. Just like the adults, youngsters are also given a choice of soup or salad. At $5.50, this is a great family deal.

Desserts tend toward chocolate decadence, but since, according to our waiter, these particular concoctions were made off site at a local bakery, we chose one dark dolci and one order of the tiramisu, which was proudly made in Vivande's own kitchen.

A dense chocolate fudge cake tasted about like you'd expect from a good bakery torte--moist, sweet and delicious. It was the tiramisu, however, that proved worth the price of admission. A large square of layered espresso-and-rum-soaked ladyfingers, sweetened mascarpone cheese and whipped cream topped with a drizzle of chocolate sauce was a stupendous finale to the meal. We intended to take only a few bites and leave the rest on the plate, but it was simply too delectable. Before we knew it, we'd whittled away the piece to a mere sliver. A cup of coffee, settle the tab and roll me on out the door.

Vivande gets two thumbs up. I can't say I'd give up eating at Gavi, but I'll tell you what: If it looked like I'd be waiting for a table well into the next century, I wouldn't hesitate to wander on back to Vivande. When the alternative is this good, you can't go wrong.

Vivande. 7895 E. Broadway. 298-3700. Open from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Beer and wine. V, MC, DISC, AMEX. Menu items: $3.75-$15.95. TW

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