Great Italian food is a staple back East, so who would have thought that you can also find authentic Italian food in the middle of the desert? Such is the case with Tucson, home to a handful of thriving family-owned Italian eateries that bring the flavors and traditions of Italy to Arizona.
Caffe Milano in downtown Tucson is a choice example of what the Old Pueblo has to offer: classic Italian dishes served with gourmet flair and high quality imported ingredients. If you're nostalgic for the traditional East Coast corner market and deli, head straight to Tony's Italian Deli, serving up some of Tucson's freshest deli cuts, hot pasta dishes, and hot and cold sandwiches.
For hand-crafted Italian foods made from fresh, local ingredients, North is a sleek urban bistro specializing in wood-fired Italian dishes. Mama Louisa's Italian Restaurant is Tucson's answer to your classic, neighborhood family-owned Italian restaurant. Since 1956, Mama Louisa's has been making fresh homemade pasta that is served with the delicious slow simmered house tomato sauce.
For special occasions, Tavolino is one of Tucson's hottest tickets, a tiny cafe with a daily-changing array of specials with some of the city's finest Northern Italian cuisine. Make a reservation: it can be hard to get a table at this trendy restaurant.
Adhering to the standards set forth by the Verace Pizza Napoletana Association (arbiters of fine Neapolitan pizza), Vero Amore (which means "true love" in Italian) bakes its pizzas in a brick, wood-burning oven, using fresh mozzarella made in-house and roma tomatoes imported directly from Italy. This is pizza for grownups, the object of almost irrational cravings. In keeping with the high quality of the pies, salads and dressings are all super fresh and homemade, and the couple of pastas on the menu are divine. Come here to indulge in a pizza-making tradition that dates back hundreds of years. (520-325-4122)
Mama Louisa's Italian Restaurant
Mama Louisa's Italian Restaurant is Tucson's answer to the traditional family-owned Italian restaurant. Since 1956, Mama Louisa's has been dishing out hearty, delicious Italian food for generations. Here you'll find fresh homemade pastas, slow simmered tomato sauces, and high quality, hand selected meats, cheeses, fruits and vegetables. Try Joe's Lasagna, featuring homemade noodles, fresh Ricotta cheese, layers of meat, cheese and then topped with Joe's special sauce. The Eggplant Parmigiana, fresh eggplant sliced, breaded, fried and layered, drenched in slow-simmered tomato sauce and cheese, then served with a side of homemade linguini, is also excellent. Can't decide what to order? The combination platters let you sample numerous menu specialties. (520-790-4702)
Located in Oro Valley just north of Tucson, Caffe Torino offers lovely views of the Catalina Mountains. This family owned and operated restaurant specializes in Northern Italian cuisine. Food is prepared daily in the kitchen with the freshest ingredients available, locally sourced whenever possible. Start with the Bruschetta Caprese, toasted ciabatta with a hint of garlic and then topped with chopped Wilcox tomatoes. Served with fresh mozzarella and fresh basil on a bed of mesclun. The Risotto con scallope di mare, a seared sea scallops in a lemon butter with white wine garlic sauce served with sweet peas and parmigiano risotto, is excellent. (520-219-2994)
Trattoria Pina Italian Restaurant is a family-owned restaurant located in southeast Tucson with gorgeous views of the Catalina foothills. This hidden gem dishes out superb Italian food made with passion and hand-crafted family recipes. The menu includes veal, fresh seafood and a large variety of pastas, salads, and gourmet pizzas made in a wood burning oven. Some of the house favorites are the homemade desserts made at Trattoria Pina, as well as the made-from-scratch gnocchi. potato dumplings with served with your choice all'arrabiata (spicy garlic marinara cream), or al'pesto (basil cream), or marinara sauce. All are made fresh and delightful. ((520) 577-6992)
Tucked away in a shopping center on Oracle Road, Guiseppe's in Tucson may not be the easiest Italian restaurant to find. But that's where the phrase "hidden gem" comes into play. The family-owned restaurant has an extensive menu of classic Italian antipasti and pasta dishes. There is a steady, knowing hand at work in the kitchen, because the food tastes comforting, authentic and just plain delicious. Go for the bruschetta for starters. For an entree, you can't really go wrong with the chicken alfredo or penne sausage. The service is reliable, and the small dining room is nearly always full. It goes to show that you don't always need a perfect location to draw a crowd. For dessert, opt for the spumoni, which doesn't disappoint. ((520) 505-4187)
NoRTH is the epitome of trendiness - the urban ambience is defined by sleek lines, white leather, exposed brick, and dark wood, plus awesome panoramic city views. Their forte is wood roasted and grilled dishes; not just meats but virtually everything on the menu has at least one ingredient that has seen the inside of the wood-fired oven. From high-end pizzas to steaks to the humble grilled artichoke and lemon aioli appetizer, the smoky flavor of an open fire adds depth to even the simplest Italian-inspired dishes. The extreme popularity of NoRTH means that it's often crowded, but on a positive note there are three other locations to visit: in Scottsdale, Glendale and Denver. (520-299-1600)
Tiny and trendy, Tavolino is one restaurant where reservations are an absolute must. Northern Italian cuisine is the specialty, with homemade pastas and grilled meats being the main choices. The logical appetizer choice is the Antipasto Assortito, a daily-changing array of meats, cheeses and marinated veggies that serves to excite the taste buds without sating the appetite. Although the offerings change regularly, two pasta dishes stand out: delicate butternut squash ravioli in butter and sage, and the layered lasagna, aromatic with meat and garlic. Grilled lamb chops and char-broiled chicken are also reliably well-prepared. Save room for the Bonet, a swoon-inducing chocolate custard topped with caramel sauce. Tavolino has been named as one of the top Italian restaurants in the country by several publications. ((520) 531-1913)
Caffe Milano is located in the heart of downtown Tucson on Congress Street. The authentic Italian cuisine is prepared fresh daily. The menu features traditional Mediterranean breakfasts, pasta plates, salads, and some of the best panini sandwiches in town. The panini sandwiches at Caffe Milano are made with Boars Head meats and served on fresh-baked focaccia, ciabatta, or tuscan bread. Caffe Milano also serves breakfast, featuring Italian-influenced egg dishes and a premium selection of coffees. The Italian-influenced desserts are also excellent. When the weather is cool, make sure to take a seat on the outdoor patio, one of the loveliest in the region. ((520) 628-1601)
Tony's Italian Deli
This southeast-side Italian deli is the closest thing you can get to going back east without having to step on a plane. Tony's Italian Deli evokes the classic Brooklyn corner market, serving up some of Tucson's freshest deli cuts and tastiest specialty sandwiches. Along with cold and hot sandwiches, you'll also find an array of Italian pasta entrees, salads, and pizzas. House specialties include the sample plate (a great choice for indecisive folks), which includes lasagna, ravioli, eggplant, stuffed shell, and pasta covered in red sauce. Or try the
Veal Saltimbocca, medallions of veal in a white wine sage sauce. The Spaghetti Carbonara is another winner, pacetta with olive oil, pasta, eggs, and spices. ((520) 747-0070)
Dominick's Real Italian
If you're looking for an unpretentious neighborhood spot in Tucson serving up deliciously good Italian food, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better spot than Dominick's Real Italian in northwest Tucson. The restaurant offers a wide breadth of highly craveable Italian classics, including an excellent fettuccine Alfredo, lasagna and a full menu of specialty pizzas (available by the slice during lunch). Breaded chicken dishes like the chicken scarpiello and chicken piccata are excellent. You'll also find high quality seafood dishes, including a tempting seafood risotto and flavorful, chile-infused calamari. Complimentary garlic knots and a fresh, homemade marinara sauce add to the restaurant's homespun charm. ((520) 744-2002)
About Patricia Escarcega
Patricia Escarcega has lived in the Arizona desert since she was a teenager. She works as a writer and editor in Phoenix with her four dogs and two cats.
She received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona and is working on a novel about growing up in the 1990s.
Read more about Patricia Escarcega here.