READERS' PICK: If you're not on the guest list for any big outdoor wedding receptions in southern Italy, Caruso's is the next best thing. The food is good, but that's not the point. Dinner in Caruso's garden caresses all the senses: the feel of the cool air rising from the moist gravel underfoot, the sound of gloriously corny Italian music mingled with the sweet burbling of the fountain, the perfume of garlic and the secret basil garden, the sight of the traditional Italian garden with lights strung from its cypresses and pomegranates all combine to soothe the heart and soul. The waitstaff moves through the garden in crisp black and white, and murmuring children crouch by the fishpond trying to pet the goldfish.
READERS' POLL RUNNER-UP: Ovens, 4280 N. Campbell Ave. Admittedly, eating outdoors in summer at a place called Ovens sounds like a bad joke. But wait three or four more weeks: the evenings will be balmy, and the scent of Ovens' pizzas, portabello mushrooms and other taste treats cooked over a wood fire will inspire a relaxed sigh as the day fades away. The courtyard off Ovens' patio is refreshingly green, and if you listen carefully you can hear the oversized fountain burbling from just outside the nearby gates. Order a drink, an appetizer, a grilled entrée and settle in like you own the place. Ovens' patio is the perfect provincial backyard.
MORE MANIA: The Ocotillo Café, at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, 2021 N. Kinney Road. Most of us think of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum as a great place to take out-of-town visitors or a group of kids to give them a panoramic view of the life and natural history of our region. Seldom is dining a draw to the westside location, but it could be -- especially when the eatery is the Ocotillo Café. Open for lunch only during the winter months, and on Saturday evenings throughout the summer, the dining space and its adjoining patio are relatively small (calling for reservations is almost a necessity). But if you can secure outdoor seating, you'll be in for an al fresco delight. Summer, with the monsoon storms rolling across the desert, holds singular appeal. What a dramatic spot to sip a margarita and watch the sun set -- or once the winter weather turns chilly, to bask warmly in the sun's rays. The menu is brief but impressive, featuring dishes reflective of our Southwestern region. We've munched on gargantuan Guaymas shrimp in a spicy, chile-tinged cocktail sauce; grilled sirloin steak served with bell peppers, manchego cheese and green chiles; and pasta tossed with chayote squash, nopales, roasted peppers, grilled eggplant and fresh tomatoes in chipotle cream sauce. Desserts are equally as regional, with a dense chocolate torte dusted with cinnamon, and unique "dessert tacos" made with blue corn. Paid museum admission is required in order to dine at the Ocotillo Café, but once you've settled into a patio seat to take in the splendid surroundings, you'll know the entry fee was worth it.
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