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Restaurant Reviews - 2002
Update - 2006

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Tucson Pizza Places Examined

 

Let there be no mistake, Tucson has good pizza. In fact, depending on what styles you're used to, it might have some of the best in the conterminous states. We were in Chicago once and had always heard about the quality of pizza to be had there. We challenged a Goliard staff member who hailed from the area to take us out so we could compare notes betwixt the Windy City's best and the specialty pies to be had in the Old Pueblo. While the city with the big shoulders and saggy gut did have decent pizza, we found nothing to embarrass the pies a person can find out here in the desert. 

One intangible factor to be considered of course when rating pizza experiences is the environment you are asked to consume your pizza in. Shy Town, along with most other substantive, ethnically diverse cities, kicks Tucson's ass in that department, especially as far as Italian food goes. However, this tends to make many folks think that the food itself is superior. But ambiance does not always a meal make. Just because the big eastern cities abound with local joints steeping in decades of aromas with ancient sauce stains on the walls and ethnic argot echoing from the kitchen, this doesn't necessarily mean that the pie itself would stand out if it had been served in a renovated Circle K store on east Grant Rd.

The Tucson pizza scene is fairly simple to explain, Zachary's has some of the best pizza in the country but some of the worst service on the planet. Fioritos has survived the recent departure of founder and local character Vern Lowe and continues to turn out above average pizza but the dining in experience has gone down the drain to the point where you can barely stomach your food for all the cloying service and forced atmosphere. Frog and Firkin is a great spot on non band nights and can offer excellent service (at least it did on a recent visit, and thank you Lindsey) but offers only a reasonable facsimile of a Zachary's pizza that lacks inspiration.

Let's start with Zachary's which is one of the most frustrating places in town to dine. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, the pizzas are creative, fat and sassy, the ingredients fresh and succulent, and the beer selection excellent. Zachary himself, who does not seem to be in house very often, has his priorities in order in this regard. (Actually Dave is the owner and can be seen in the place from time to time - Thanks EF - 2007) His new, relocated by UA expansion, space across Sixth St from his old store continues to represent a no nonsense, picnic table approach to dining and he makes sure, as he always has, that an ample sampling of the world's best brews are on tap. Served in English size pint glasses, the beer changes seasonally with twenty or thirty choices being the norm. He even stocks unique bottled beers in case your palate requires something that hasn't yet been adequately kegged. Dave is to be commended for this since he was providing the option long before multiple taps became trendy. However a guy can't have everything we guess and the genius he brings to stocking the coolers and securing delicious ingredients, he sacrifices in hiring the floor personnel.

The service situation can be best summed up with the following anecdotes. A staff member took his wife over on a sweet summer night hoping to sit outside and enjoy the changing air as a monsoon rolled in. After a lengthy wait, their order was taken and awhile later their drinks delivered. Then an hour passed when not a server was seen. When they approached the bar to try to procure another beer to ease the pain of separation from their pie, they were told by the hostess that she was too young to serve beer and they'd have to find the waitress. After requesting that she be sent out, they returned to the table and another 20 minutes passed before they decided to leave. On the way to their car they spotted their waitress huddled next to a back wall, blowing some weed with three men twice her age. She noticed them and came bouncing over to say, "I'm sooo sorry you guys. I think your pizza must be ready by now but I was out here visiting my dad." She pointed and waved to a bearded character sitting on the back of a motorcycle. "He doesn't get to town very often."

Another Goliard staff member signed up for a poetry class at the UA one time and showed up for his first day excited, invigorated, a little nervous, and relishing the opportunity and challenge provided by the workshop environment. Everything was inspiring in the setting save one thing - a single other student of the twelve matriculated was so insipid, so vapidly self important, so heinously oblivious to her own inanity, lack of talent, and misunderstanding of the purpose of any exercise, that he was forced to withdraw mid-semester despite the fact that it was the only class he needed in order to graduate. "I would wake up in the morning and hear her voice," he recounts now, taking a break from his law practice to reflect. "I just couldn't bring myself to get dressed and head down to campus knowing she would be there. She just beat me down. I really thought I was showing some promise as a writer too. Maybe I could have been somebody." The offending woman has waited tables at Z's for the past few years and when not working (and we use that term so loosely that no goosey anecdote exists to make our point) she can often be found at one of the tables near you, talking loudly,  swinging her equine head and meeting your eyes with a perpetual dull and off putting blankness. 

While some might claim that having such a rag taggle staff adds to the character of a place, (many of the girls will plop down at your table while taking an order, use profanity freely, are liable to be braless, deoderantless or perhaps even shoeless, scratch themselves, reek of smoke, hang with their friends, drink a brew, or spit into a planter while in plain view of the diners) and we would have no problem with any of this behavior and, in fact, even support it wholeheartedly if they weren't also so inept. And keep in mind that what they are doing is serving pizzas. All this should require is taking a drink order, an order for toppings, maybe the odd salad, making one or two trips to the table during an hour span, and clearing away the evidence when the folks have gone. A decent wait person should be able to handle the whole place themselves. There are no specials to remember, no temperatures of meats, very little ground pepper to dispense, no formalities expected, and no table side service that needs to go on. Write it on a pad and hand it to the cooks, draught some beers and your work is basically done. And the pizzas, because they are two inches thick and mounded with ingredients, take at least a half hour to cook. So out of the hour or so that the customer spends waiting and eating, a waitress needs to be present or attentive for maybe two minutes total.
 
"We'd like a small, half Smoky Western and half Flying Z." 
"OK that will be ready in about a half hour what can I get you from the bar in the mean time?" 
"A couple of large pints of Sierra Nevada." 

How hard can it be? Typically the beers come and then you don't speak with the waitress again (unless you make a trip to the parking lot) until 40 minutes later when she arrives with your cooling pie. This would seem to be ample time to gather some glasses and get the pizza pans to the dishwasher. However tables sometimes remain dirty for hours and glasses are forever piled up on the bar. We have been there dozens of times and the service has been mind numbingly, consistently bad on nearly every visit yet we kept returning for the longest time. That's how good the pizza is and how rewarding the beer menu is. Roughly one in ten times you might have a good service experience and over the years there has been an odd waitress or two that has tried to be competent until peer pressure wore her down. It would be comical watching the staff on a busy night walking in circles, wringing their hands, bumping into each other in their haste to get out to the parking lot to smoke up if you had ample refreshment to enjoy the show. 

Most of us still order Zach's pizza but choose to pick it up and take it home in order to spare ourselves the aggravation. And while nothing can compare to the campus pizza hang out experience with the steaming pie and English pint, in Tucson it has become not worth it for most of us. We visited Z's again just last week in the spirit of fairness to make sure things hadn't vastly improved and were ignored for ten minutes after arrival as several waitresses with blinders on walked back and forth past our table focusing intently on some apparent task but to no evident result. After we were finally acknowledged, the server was at least not rude, and despite forgetting our salad, and delivering a pizza that was not fully cooked, did an adequate job. Again, that's how good the pizza is. If you can't stand the service, call in and take one home. The Circle K down the street now carries many of the same beers and if they don't Plaza Liquors certainly does. 

Or you could go to the Frog and Firkin where you sacrifice some pie quality but, as long as it's a week day, make up for it in atmosphere and service. The Firkin has the advantage of good karma seeping up through the stones it sits on. Shaded by one of the more pleasant trees in town, it occupies the spot of the former Sawmill Cafe which later became Blue Jays. The Sawmill was one of the great bars back in the day with giant spools and stumps for tables and an open mike on the porch where people would sing and play guitar. Of course this was when Gentle Ben's was a block from where it is now and also an excellent bar instead of a joke and Mike's Place across the alley served 49 cent breakfasts and 99 cent pitchers before 4 p.m. University Avenue was vastly different back then and a true haven for goliardic exchange. It has deteriorated in that regard obviously with Urban outfitters and Urban sports bars and Gap kids but the Firkin maintains a link to the past and on a spring week night when there's no band setting up, and no crowds of frat boys sucking ciggys and gorging themselves on french fries before they head out to the clubs, the atmosphere can be almost perfect. They have a decent beer list and used to even offer the "yard" of beer although the server's tended to panic when one was ordered and started filling out forms and taking deposits to the point where it isn't worth it. The pizza looks like it is going to be better than it is with a good thick crust but the ingredients lack the pungency of Z's, seem unattached to the crust proper, and often slide off in the middle of the pan in a congealed stuck together heap.. Don't get us wrong, the pizza is still considerably better than most of the other places in town, but to concern ourselves with the lower tiers would be beyond the scope of this exercise.

Fioritos, on Grant between Tucson and Country Club, has been turning out excellent pizza since Vern opened a little walk up deli stand in the late seventies where some of the poor bastards that were sentenced to go to Doolin Jr High would stop on the way home for a slice and coke. It soon grew into a successful neighborhood joint with Vern's comforting inebriated presence providing increased impetus to visit and his daughter and wife providing much of the hospitality and service. The pizza is thin crust and is served elevated on a grate which allows the aromas to waft and the juices to run. Capacola, mushroom, onion, and garlic was our standard and we probably ate 500 of them back in the day. Lovely daughter Michelle would wait on us with a removed efficient coolness that made us lust for her all the more, Vern could often be seen through the kitchen door holding a busboy up against the wall by his lapels, his wife would shout at him to settle down, the both of them would swill red wine by the liter and the faces in the crowd were from around the neighborhood. The decor was simple, diner style, the beer was domestic but cold and life was good. 

All things must pass however and Fioritos is under new ownership now. There are table cloths, candles, flowery pinkish walls, seemingly four or five servers per table ever filling your water and tripping over each other. Michelle is gone (drop a line wherever you are so we might know that you are well) and replaced by a nervous looking preposterously efficacious white shirted staff that makes it hard to relax and enjoy a pie anymore. Also the capacola topping seems to change on every visit with one recent offering being some sort of pepper steak that was spicy and salty to the point that the pizza had to be discarded. Fioritos does offer a drive up window on the west side of the building for added convenience and although one youngster who was manning it recently asked if we wanted any change (why would we leave a 3.75 tip for the privilege of driving to pick up a pie?) it normally represents the most painless way in town to enjoy a delicious pizza.

There is other pizza around as well obviously with Magpies, Ovens, and Thunder Canyon offering some decent fare, (Thunder Canyon has great microbrews to accompany) but none are in the league with the above mentioned three establishments where, if you can stand the heat rising in your neck from infuriating service, you can usually get an excellent pie out of the kitchen.

Ed's note - We have visited Zachary's pizza five or so more times since this review was first published and have found the service greatly improved. The wait staff seems to be fresh faced, helpful, and fairly efficient these days (5/22/2003). We'll keep you posted.

Tucson Pizza Update

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