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Little Pizza Heaven

Oregano's spices up the bistro scene.

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In case you haven't driven down Speedway and witnessed the line leading out the door and into the parking lot, Tucson is the home of a brand new bouncing baby Oregano's, a pizza bistro. Could there be any two words more trendy and buzzy than pizza and bistro? I think not.

Oregano's rides the horse right out of the barn. This is a full-on, no-holds-barred dive into kitsch and marketing savvy. Clearly, the Gibbilini family has hit upon the recipe for success. Its first four venues were so wildly popular in the Phoenix area that a fifth was planted in Flagstaff, followed rapidly by the sixth right here on Speedway.

Oregano's sidesteps generic appeal strictly based on its size. This isn't a cattle call; there are only 12 tables and a bar. The atmosphere has a nostalgic, small neighborhood feel: Big Band and swing music blares, a casual and boisterous staff greets you, and the venue creates a sense of camaraderie.

Nothing creates the burning desire and sense of exclusion more quickly than the fact that there is on average an hour to an hour-and-a-half wait to get into the door. Most of us don't like to be told we can't have something, or that someone else is going to get it first. It just drives against our cultural expectation of immediate gratification. Oregano's accepts no reservations or phone-ins. If you want a seat, you have to go down there and get your name on the list. What you do with the hour-long wait is entirely up to you. Some people camp out in the parking lot; others go shopping and come back within the allotted time. Still others crowd in by the door and start having cocktails while they wait. In any event, Oregano's is certainly enjoying its own fair share of success.

That success comes from a well-deserved reputation for selling honest food at a fair price. The menu is far ranging, a little jangly, but bursting with solid options. You'll receive your menu inside an old record album (ah, the kitsch) and despite the loud music, general roar of happy diners and kitchen din, you'll want to clear your mind enough to be able to consider all your options. There are quite a few.

A few simple warnings here would be appropriate. The portions at Oregano's are gargantuan. These people love food and they want you to love it, too. If your server cautions you that one bowl of pasta is enough for two, be a believer. Also, should you want to order lasagna or the deep-dish stuffed pizza, your server should inform you these items can take 30 to 40 minutes to prepare, so you'll want to order them first. Then spend a bit of time perusing the menu for smaller items you might want to nibble while you wait. Try and turn your back on the desperate souls shifting from foot to foot at the door wanting your particular spot.

While we waited, we tried a few appetizers. The Brusechetta Autentico was a huge platter of crispy (as in crouton crispy) bread slices slathered with tomatoes, basil, garlic, olive oil, oregano and parmesan. For $4.69 it was a bargain. The Bistro Calamari ($4.99) was a generous basket of uniform ring-sized calamari served with marinara sauce; this was a popular item with the kid crowd. The Boom Dip ($5.99), heartily recommended by our server, was a bowl of spinach, artichokes and cheeses served with "Italian chips" (more crouton crispy bread) for dipping. Although a popular item, the dip itself tasted odd to me: The vinegary artichokes, the sludgy spinach texture and the overwhelming amount of cheese made this a gluey dish I probably wouldn't order again.

One salad could easily feed a family of four. We tried the Oregano's Favorite, a healthy toss of romaine, sun-dried tomatoes, kalamata olives, spiced feta, roasted red peppers, red onions, pine nuts and raisins tossed with a honey vinaigrette ($7.29). Our only lament was that we weren't nearly able to do the salad justice. Mostly because we still had entrées to cover.

We decided to try the Big Ol' Ravioli because the concept was so bizarre. A platter-sized ravioli is stuffed with Italian cheeses (mostly ricotta) topped with a marinara and baked with more cheeses. True to word, a Paul Bunyan-sized ravioli arrived tableside. This is true kid food, almost cartoon food, and so perhaps one suspends one's culinary judgment a tad. This tasted more like lasagna than ravioli, and certainly didn't do justice to what a true hand-cut ravioli should be, but in the spirit of the restaurant, it serves its own purposes cheerfully and with aplomb.

We had ordered the stuffed pesto chicken pizza when we arrived ($19.95), and when it was placed on the table we all said oooh and aaah. This is pizza worth the wait. Slathered in pesto, it' stuffed to the brim with chicken, fresh tomatoes and cheese. The pesto was neither overwhelming nor wimpy. The crust, simple and light, still held up against the formidable wedge of ingredients towering above it. We voted this one of the best pizzas we've had in town all year.

Because we are true gluttons for punishment (and on a deadline) we committed ourselves to trying the meatball sandwich. Every Italian neighborhood joint should be able to whip one of these babies out and still hold its head high. Oregano's passed the test. The meatballs are enormous, fragrant and completely dominate the roll in which they rest. Topped with marinara and provolone, this is one meatball sandwich worth the $6.39 it commands.

There is only one dessert offered at Oregano's. It's called the Original Pizza Cookie, which is weird. A small pizza pan is lined with cookie dough, your choice of chocolate chip or white chocolate-macadamia nut, then tossed in a hot pizza oven until the dough starts to crisp on the outside and is still raw on the inside. Whisked from the oven, it is topped with three scoops of vanilla-bean ice cream and rushed to your table. There reaches a point in every meal where it is wise to stop. And perhaps we had reached this point. Several enthusiastic members of our dining party made short work of the pizza cookie, singing the praises of raw cookie dough and ice cream. Alas, I could not count myself among them.

Oregano's is definitely worth braving the line. It's just that good. And no matter how fast it grows, we hope Oregano's keeps the flavor of being a rambunctious neighborhood joint where you can go listen to Sinatra while you have a glass of wine and a bowl of pasta, or pile in with the whole family for a rowdy repast.

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