THIS IS A tale of two restaurants, both run by the same family, both specializing in the same cuisine. At first glance, you might assume that the two eateries would turn out a similar product and present an essentially uniform face to the public. But if you were to conclude this in the case of Michelangelo's and Café Sole -- both owned by the Ali family and both featuring Italian cuisine -- you would be sadly and profoundly mistaken.
For at least 10 years, Michelangelo's has flourished on the northwest side of town. Its signature brand of marinara sauce has encouraged several return visits and the pizza is rumored to be on a par with the best gourmet offerings in town.
In addition, the restaurant has a history that stretches back into the 1960s, when Oracle was a dirt road and the downtown convention center was merely a glimmer in some developer's eye. Damiano Ali's first eatery on Stone Avenue and Drachman (appropriately named "Damiano's") was extremely popular. The restaurant moved north, eventually landing at its present location about a decade ago, and a loyal coterie faithfully followed.
Given all this, it is surprising, if not outright shocking, that the Ali family's newest venture, Café Sole, would not only fall short of established standards of excellence but careen ignobly into the realm of the wretched.
I must admit that it gave me pause to see that the newer restaurant was housed in the former coffee shop of the Royal Sun Best Western Motel on Stone Avenue near Speedway. Many other motels along the same strip have either been abandoned or lapsed into decline over the last several years, but the Royal Sun has managed to survive, probably in part due to its moderate prices and proximity to the University of Arizona campus. Its success certainly can't be attributed to a prime location.
Just up the road a ways is Miracle Mile, also once lined with respectable accommodations but now a haven for streetwalking, drug deals and by-the-hour interludes. DeAnza Park, located directly across the street from the Royal Sun, is a favorite hangout for Tucson's sizable homeless population, who regularly roam the area in search of spare change.
Choosing to open a restaurant in this environ takes a lot of guts and a pair of strongly tinted rose-colored glasses.
Still, it could work. When downtown teetered on the edge of urban blight, Suzana Davila moved her Café Poca Cosa into the old Santa Rita Hotel, where she has since received international acclaim and untold accolades. Could the Ali family work a similar kind of magic at the Royal Sun?
The old coffee shop is still just that, a series of vinyl booths lined up along either side of the room and a breakfast stool bar jammed right in front of the open kitchen. There are no enticing aromas of sautéed garlic and onion to greet you as you enter, only the telltale stench of stale cigarette smoke trapped in the coils of synthetic fibers. The day we visited, the situation was exacerbated by a broken air-conditioning system, making the temperature as intolerable as the odor.
The hostess assured us that the problem had been corrected and we would soon be the beneficiaries of cool fresh air. Although the space was devoid of any evidence of savory life or character, we gamely decided to give it a try. After all, these were the same people who owned Michelangelo's; how bad could it be?
Our waitress was clearly overwhelmed with the sum total of three tables (one of which had already been served their dinners) and was so unfamiliar with the menu that she practically needed us to spell out our choices in order to understand what we were requesting. She didn't remember to bring ice tea (Café Sole has applied for a liquor license but, in the meantime, is sans beer or wine) until we flagged her down several minutes into the meal. As for keeping our glasses filled, well, forget it. Apparently, she couldn't make the connection between the room's sweltering temperatures and her customers' perpetually drained water glasses. A pitcher of ice water would have been nice.
A plate of the most pathetic white rolls was set before us. Not only were they tasteless and dry, they had quite obviously been incompletely warmed in the microwave, which gave them a testily tough texture.
An appetizer of mussels in marinara sauce ($7.95) was a disaster. The sauce was a knockout -- replete with a tangy pureed tomato sauce and fragrant with minced fresh garlic, oregano and fresh basil -- but the mussels were revolting. With a meaty texture that ranged from completely rubbery to pure mush, the mussels cancelled out the excellence of the marinara sauce with a potent fishy flavor. All in all, they were quite inedible.
Unimaginably, matters became even more interesting when our entrees arrived and neither one matched the order we had attempted. I had requested the veal Sole, a sautéed cutlet that came topped with shrimp, béarnaise sauce and fresh asparagus, while my companion had asked for the penne Norma, which sounded like sliced eggplant parmesan tossed with tubular pasta. What we received was a different matter. I might have been persuaded to try another dish just to expedite the evening (it appeared I was about to receive the veal saltimboca), but my vegetarian friend blanched at the juvenile beef form placed in front of him.
The waitress was mystified by it all. She returned our orders to the kitchen but, by that time, we had lost our appetites. We asked for the check and hastily departed, scratching our heads in wonder that this restaurant had any relation whatsoever to Michelangelo's. To be able to draw any connection between the two seemed preposterous, but, just to establish a quick reality check, we headed north to Oracle and Magee to see if things had radically changed for the worse at the more senior establishment.
THE PARKING LOT was jammed and dinner was in full swing when we arrived, but Michelangelo's immediately impressed. The scent of garlic and onions permeated the atmosphere (as it should in any Italian restaurant worth its salt), the staff was courteous and efficient, and the environment of white linen tablecloths, classic columns and dark tile gave the place an ambience of both character and comfort.
Our waiter was intimately familiar with the menu and, even though he was obviously busy with several other tables, spent considerable time explaining various dishes and their composition. When we ordered, we didn't even have to repeat ourselves in order to be understood. What a relief!
Dinner salads are basic but consummately fresh affairs at Michelangelo's (chilled green leaf lettuce, a slice or two of cucumber, tomato wedge, sliced black olives and a few rings of red onion) but the house Italian dressing animates the vegetables with a zesty-sweet pizzazz. A cup of minestrone was also quite good, but so thick it could have been more properly identified as a stew rather than a soup. Chunks of potato, tomato, onion and zucchini, along with tender garbanzo beans, mingled boldly with a hearty spicing of oregano, garlic and thyme. The bread on the table (both Italian white and focaccia) was warm, tender and delicious, especially when smeared with a pat of seasoned butter. Now this is an Italian restaurant.
One of Michelangelo's most popular items is pescatore ($17.50), a bowlful of shrimp, mussels, oysters, clams and scallops tossed in a tomato sauce and served with a nest of steaming pasta. The combination of the seafood (which was fresh and sweetly delicious) and that savory signature red sauce was exquisite and so unlike the mussels at Café Sole that the latter began to take the elusive form of a bad dream.
A combination platter of cannelloni, lasagna and manicotti ($12.95) was a splendid way to sample a wide swath of Michelangelo's extensive pasta offerings. The plate arrived still bubbling from the oven heat and the trio of entrees was encased in a cocoon of melted and browned cheese and a generous ladle of marinara sauce. Ricotta, mozzarella and parmesan cheese filled the interiors of the pastas along with bits of mild Italian sausage in the case of the manicotti and lasagna. The dish was amply portioned (an enviable lunch the next day) and thoroughly scrumptious -- the ideal antidote for the painful memory of squishy mussels.
Michelangelo's boasts an extensive menu, with something for almost every taste. Veal, chicken, beef, seafood (daily fresh specials are always available) and, of course, pasta in every size and shape. In addition, the wine list provides an adequate selection of both Italian and domestic wines to accompany your meal.
Save room for dessert at Michelangelo's. A tray of temptations is brought tableside to test your will power, and with specialties such as tiramisu, chocolate decadence cake and white and dark chocolate cheesecake, the seduction is difficult to resist. A German chocolate cheesecake ($3.75) -- layers of cheesecake, chocolate cheesecake, chocolate cake and a browned coconut and pecan frosting -- was divine and pushed the notion of calorie counting right out the window. Coffee is dark and strong and the assembled servers know how to keep a cup full.
Michelangelo's gives a solid performance on all counts. So, what gives with Café Sole? I guess almost all of us have a relation here and there we'd rather not acknowledge. Unexplained mutations in the gene pool happen from time to time. So cut your losses and forget about Café Sole. If you want good Italian food, there's no question that Michelangelo's is where you'll find what you're looking for.
Michelangelo's Ristorante Italiano. 420 W. Magee Road. 297-5775. Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday. Full bar. V, MC, DC, CH. Menu items: $3.95-$18.95. Café Sole in the Best Western Royal Sun Inn & Suites. 1015 N. Stone Ave. 622-4574. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner 6:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. No liquor. V, MC, CH. Menu items: $2.9 5-$14.95.