An osteria in Italy is a wine-centric eatery where friends can gather, drink good wine and enjoy simple food.
Gusto Osteria may be more food-oriented than a true Italian osteria, but it is an ideal spot for gathering, noshing and imbibing. While the team here seems to be working out a few kinks, folks living on the eastside should take note: There's a good chance Gusto could become one hot spot.
The place was packed on an evening visit in the middle of the week. The server explained that a coupon had just been in a newspaper, and many of the customers were taking advantage of the deal. While the service was professional and friendly, it seemed a bit harried, and I got the feeling the kitchen was slammed by the influx. But it speaks to the professionalism of the front of the house that they were able to keep the evening from becoming a disaster.
The space is a nice balance of elegance and industrial chic, with an eclectic mix of local artwork. There's a small bar area, an inviting patio and a small dining room that is divided in two by a low wall. Earth tones abound, and the wall of windows gives an open feeling.
The wine menu is amazing. Choices are well-balanced, with enough reds and whites to please any oenophile. The most-expensive glass is $6.75; the most-expensive bottle is around $25. They may be lesser-known labels, but both of the wines we had (a Montepulciano, $4.50) and the house white ($3.25) worked nicely with our dinner choices.
The menu proclaims that the recipes served here come from Joe Scordato, and some of the employees in both the front and back of the house have worked with him for years, apparently. The Scordato family has been a part of the Tucson dining scene for decades, and Joe has been a key player. Over the years, he has been instrumental in opening several restaurants, most recently Guiseppe's (with which he is apparently no longer involved), and now Gusto. The server told us, though, that Joe is not directly involved beyond his contributions to the menu.
We started with the Parmesan potatoes ($2), which are appetizers on the dinner menu and a side dish on the lunch menu. They were utterly yummy (although different from ones I've had elsewhere on Scordato menus). Sliced paper-thin, the potatoes had been fried, topped with an immensity of Parmesan cheese, and baked golden-brown. The cheese was part chewy, part crispy—a perfect balance.
We then ordered the braciole ($18.95) and the farfalle Bolognese ($13.95), and as sides, we ordered the house salad and the minestrone.
The minestrone was nice to look at, thanks to its mix of vegetables, but it lacked flavor, and the portion was so small (or perhaps the bowl was so big) that you couldn't dip the spoon completely into it. The salad, on the other hand, had an enormous amount of lettuce, tomatoes, red onions, croutons and cheese, but it seemed to have been hastily thrown together.
The braciole consisted of three good-sized pieces of rolled meat that had been packed with a "robust" stuffing, all sitting atop a generous portion of fettuccini. The sauce didn't seem to be the promised red tomato sauce—it was more gravy-like, and there was a lot of spicy heat. The stuffing was hard to decipher; it looked like a piece of bread that had been seasoned.
The farfalle was also overseasoned; it was delicious, but there was definitely plenty of red pepper and garlic.
We finished off with dolce di Patricia ($4.50), another traditional Scordato recipe. The moist, slightly sweet cake was the perfect foil to the heat from the entrées.
Lunch was a more relaxing and appetizing experience. We had the stuffed mushrooms ($5.95) for starters, and for our main courses, we had the eggplant Parmesan sandwich ($8.50) and the manicotti ($9.95).
The four mushrooms were more stuffing than mushroom, and certainly wouldn't win any prizes for good looks, but they were tender and tasty.
The sandwich, which was served on a standard Italian roll, was perfectly prepared. The breading added both a nice texture and delicate flavor without dominating the tender vegetable. Topped with a wonderful marinara sauce and lots of freshly grated Parmesan, this was a nice version of one of my favorite sandwiches. The side salad that accompanied it was much better than the one served at dinner. There was just enough dressing to make the mixed greens stand out.
The manicotti was also nicely done. Delicate sheets of homemade pasta, so thin you could almost see through them, were wrapped around a mild, creamy mix of ricotta, other cheeses and herbs. Topped with red sauce and Parmesan, and then baked, the manicotti was most satisfying.
Gusto Osteria offers some good food and quality service, but here's the rub: The dishes here may be based on Joe Scordato's recipes, but the kitchen seems to have put its own mark on several of the key menu items, notably the eggplant Parmesan and the braciole. In the long run, that personal touch will be a good thing—a necessary thing.
Either way, carry on, Gusto Osteria. You're on your way to a great future.