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Another Look

We revisit two popular Tucson eateries: Intermezzo and Chopped

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When we checked out Intermezzo last year ("Restaurant Mechanics," Feb. 19, 2004), we found a charming, little lunch restaurant with delicious food.

Unfortunately, when the Williams Centre-area restaurant became even the slightest bit busy, all hell broke loose. At the time, Intermezzo was operated in a fast-casual style: Customers ordered at a counter, where they were handed their drinks (like, say, hot coffee). Because the restaurant is smallish, tables filled up fast, but there was no waiting area, and nowhere to set down drinks. Plus, the kitchen was efficient, meaning it was not uncommon for your food to be ready before you'd snatched a table (and we mean "snatched"--there was nobody directing traffic, so to speak).

It was a delicious, nice-looking disaster.

Well, since then, a lot has changed. There's a new owner; Intermezzo has added dinner hours; and, praise the Lord, they've dumped counter-ordering in favor of table service. As a result of that one change alone, Intermezzo is worth a recommendation.

Thankfully, not everything at Intermezzo's changed; the food is still fantastic, and the charming décor is largely the same. That's not to say everything's perfect, but it's a helluva lot better.

Garrett and I visited on a recent weekday evening to give dinner a shot. Lunch can still be crazy at Intermezzo, with hungry worker bees buzzing in for fantastic sandwiches ($7.50-$10.95), paninis ($7.95-$8.95), soups (cup $3.95; bowl $5.50) and salads ($5.95-$11.50), but dinner tends to be a bit slow--and that's a shame.

Only two other tables were occupied when we arrived, and those groups both soon left. We ordered the three-spread bruschetta ($6.95) and the tuna tartare ($7.95) to split; I chose a bowl of French onion soup ($3.95), too, while Garrett went with the mixed organic greens ($3.50). For main courses, Garrett picked the roasted shrimp capellini ($15.95), while I got the manicotti ($10.75).

Food-wise, everything ranged from decent to fantastic. The bruschetta, with kalamata olive tapenade, herbed goat cheese and oven-roasted tomatoes, was a thing of wonder. (They do need to include more bread, though, as it tends to run out before the toppings.) The tuna tartare--ahi with tomatoes and avocado served with soy dressing--was quite refreshing. Garrett's salad was nicely fresh; my soup was the weakest link, being a bit bland, but it wasn't bad at all.

Our entrées were both decent, yet not perfect. My manicotti was wonderfully light, but the marinara was a bit too watery and could have used a little more flavor other than salt. Garrett thought his perfectly cooked capellini was too salty, although he enjoyed the abundant mushrooms and shrimp (although he wished the tails had been removed).

The biggest problem during our visit was the service. Since the employees were nearing the end of their work evening and had only one table to serve, they lost focus. They started talking--loudly--about personal stuff. At one point, we had to ask for a water refill--twice before we got more. And when I asked about their wine flight of the week, as advertised on the menu, our server had to go and ask what it was, before returning and declaring they didn't have one that week. Surprised, I asked why; she responded that, in fact, the only person who knew what the flight was had left, so that's why she said they didn't have one.

Sigh.

I am going to assume this was just a bad night, and there's evidence backing this up, because I've been to Intermezzo on non-reviewing trips when the service was much better. I recommend checking Intermezzo out: Chances are, you won't be disappointed.

When Chopped opened its doors for business a little more than a half-year ago, John Peck wrote a nice piece detailing the behind-the scenes, pre-opening insanity at the fast-casual salad joint ("Chop! Chop!" March 17). But we hadn't officially stopped by to review the place yet--until now.

Well, Chopped has become one of the most popular lunch joints around town. It was packed, and seeing as the dining room seats more people than the parking lot can accommodate, you should be prepared to park on the street and walk a little.

While Chopped also offers soups (vegetable for $2.95), sandwiches ($5.95-$6.95), paninis ($6.50-$7.25) and a small kids' menu, the restaurant's primary attraction is salads. Here's how it works, assuming you don't want one of the tried-and-true combos (like a Cobb salad): You walk in and get a card with all of the salad options. Take the time to study it; all the options are presented alphabetically, but somewhat strangely: "hard-boiled egg" is alphabetized under "h," so don't go looking for eggs under "e." Olives are under "b" and "k"--black and kalamata--not "o."

Using a little golf pencil, you first pick a lettuce (iceberg, romaine or spring mix) and, second, up to five "choppings," for $5.95. (Extra "choppings" are 50 cents each. The choppings include almost four dozen choices, including six cheeses, five nuts/seeds and a ton of vegetables and other goodies.) Third, you pick a "protein" if you choose--a meat, or tuna, or tofu, etc., for $1.50-$2 extra. Finally, you pick a dressing. Then you give the card to the person at the counter, pay (and get a drink and/or a dessert, too) and find a seat. When the salad's finished--it only took about five minutes for us, even at the lunch rush--it's delivered to your table.

I got romaine with artichoke hearts, black olives, cucumber, hard-boiled egg and Swiss cheese, with turkey as my protein and fat-free caesar as my dressing. Garrett got the spring mix with beets, mushrooms, sprouts, celery and tomatoes, along with grilled chicken and hot Thai peanut dressing. Both salads, served with a hard breadstick, were large and delicious, full of fresh ingredients and tasty dressings. Both also had a weird quirk--Garrett's only had three pieces of celery in the entire salad, and a couple wayward pieces of mandarin orange had snuck into mine.

Chopped is clean and brightly colored--green, maroon and light orange walls complement the sunshine coming in the front windows--and the servers seem friendly (although the person who took my order barely said a word to me). It's a perfect place to enjoy a yummy salad--that is, if you don't mind parking a block or two away and walking during busy times.

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