Visitors to Italy who stray from well-tread tourist paths in small villages or obscure city neighborhoods often report the discovery of charming cafes, trattorias, and ristorantes — family owned and operated, some with folksy names like “La Cucina Della Mamma,” offering delicious, reasonably-priced, house-made cuisine.
Entering Caffe Torino, tucked away in a corner of a busy shopping plaza at the intersection of East River and North Craycroft, may evoke a similar sensation for those who have wandered over the cobblestones of Bologna, Genoa, or Milan.
A spin-off from Caffe Torino in Oro Valley, which has been drawing crowds of devotees for two decades, the Foothills venue feels surprisingly intimate given that it can seat up to 80 guests.
Surrounding small tables, ringed by comfortable booths on the room’s perimeter, are walls decorated with enormous, black-and-white photographs of the family of Daniela Borella, owner and executive chef, taken years ago in her native Italy. These striking, enlarged images reflect the restaurant’s deep Italian roots.
In the late 1980s, Borella immigrated with her parents, Edy and Italo, and, in 2000, she and her mother opened a small cafe specializing in coffee and sandwiches.
Encouraged by the popularity of the tiny panini luncheon stand, and making good use of a reservoir of family recipes from the old country, the family opened Caffe Torino, honoring the northern Italian city of Turin.
The menus at the Oro Valley and Foothills Torino restaurants are identical. Daniela, who remains responsible for overall uniform quality control at both locations, also creates inventive new recipes to assure that the Torino dishes remain fresh and vibrant.
Together with Torino’s general manager, Ollie Shouse, co-executive chef, David Royle, and Angel Ciambor, chef at the Foothills site, she keeps a keen, continuous eye on food preparation.
Shouse is quick to emphasize, “Our passion is to serve incomparably delicious food.”
Delicious and plentiful. The restaurant’s capacious lunch and dinner menus list an impressively extensive offering of appetizers, salads, pasta, and both seafood and meat entrées, plus vegetarian, and vegan options -- all presented in bounteous portions.
But if there is a singular Torino specialty, it is likely seafood. Since opening its Foothills site in 2013, the restaurant has earned a widespread reputation throughout metropolitan Tucson for its savory pasta and seafood dishes.
“The fish we serve is caught each morning in Guaymas and delivered express to us that same afternoon,” said Shouse.
On a recent early evening, waiters first brought to our table Torino’s version of the popular Italian appetizer, Carciofi Fritti, often called “Roman-style fried artichokes.”
Served on an extended salad platter, the crispy, fried artichokes are served on a bed of fresh tomatoes and mixed greens, topped with shaved parmesan and a tasty parsley aioli sauce.
A most generous antipasti, these lightly battered artichokes are perfect finger food for Torino’s happy hour (3 - 6 p.m. each day, when all drinks are discounted and the restaurant’s appetizers are $3 less than menu price).
The dish was soon followed by a plate of Bruschetta Caprese — toasted ciabatta brushed with extra-virgin olive oil and garlic, smothered with chopped tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and basil, and sliced Tuscany-grown Nostraline olives.
Without pause, our waiter also delivered an alluring tray of Gamberi E Pancetta — juicy shrimp wrapped with lean Italian bacon on a bed of arugula, bathed in a balsamic reduction, and dusted with Parmesan shavings.
Caffe Torino also offers an array of pasta, meat, and meatless dishes sure to please guests whose preferences exclude or extend beyond seafood.
One particular customer favorite is the Melanzane Alla Parmigiana — an eggplant parmesan with penne pomodoro, covered in a simple but savory sauce of olive oil, fresh tomatoes, and basil.
Those led to believe that Northern Italian cuisine is exclusively synonymous with white wine sauce will be convincingly disabused of the misconception after sampling Caffe Torino’s exquisite Lasagna Alla Bolognese.
The Bolognese is a chunky, tomato-based meat sauce expertly layered with house-made pasta, a creamy Béchamel, and fresh Parmesan.
Also offered daily at Caffe Torino are exceptional veal, chicken, pork, and lamb chop dishes in addition to vegetarian options.
Seafood lovers who pass on the Gamberi or Cioppino may gravitate to the Linguine Allo Scoglio — wide strings of fresh pasta covered with plump shrimp, wild sea scallops, mussels, and clams — all enveloped in the diner’s choice of garlic white wine or tomato sauce.
Diners searching in vain for a list of desserts on the printed menu will be pleased to learn that there is always a selection of house-made treats available — each enthusiastically described by the restaurant’s knowledgeable wait staff.
On a recent visit, the evening’s sweets included New York-style cheesecake, tiramisu, creme brulee, warm chocolate cake with ice cream, carrot cake, and warm pie a la mode.
We opted for the velvety Spumoni, which was as flavorful and refreshing as it is colorful.
Caffe Torino in the Foothills boasts one of the most extensive selections of Italian wine in Arizona, with over 2,000 bottles in stock.
“Whatever your taste in wine and whatever your budget, we can virtually guarantee [to have] the wine you love,” said Shouse.
Whether an $8 glass of California cabernet or a $400 bottle of one of Italy’s finest “Super Tuscans” — referenced as “nectars of the gods” by connoisseurs — Caffe Tornino’s staff is delighted to retrieve, decant, and pour.
Betraying its appearance as a small restaurant lounge, the bar at Torino boasts an extensive repository of fine whiskeys — especially small-batch Kentucky bourbon and single-malt Scotch whisky.
A recent, late-evening visitor told us, “I once lived in London, which prides itself on serving the finest Scotch whisky. Then, after moving back to the states, I stumbled upon a simply phenomenal collection of single-malts — where? At a little Italian restaurant in Tucson! Who would have thought?”
An evening that begins at Caffe Torino’s well-stocked bar with cocktails and appetizers, like Calamari E Verdure or crab cakes (Crocchette Di Granchio), may well extend into the restaurant for a dinner of salad, pasta, and a seafood or meat dish, all accompanied by superb Italian wine.
And then, perhaps, an espresso with a small, sipping glass of rare, aged bourbon before heading home? Buona notte!
The restaurant is open from 11 a.m. - 9 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Brunch is served Sundays, 10:30 a.m. - 3 p.m.
If you're interested in hearing The Tony Frank Trio, a jazz combo, they play live on Thursday and Saturday nights.
Caffe Torino Foothills is located at 5605 E. River Rd., Ste. 121. For more information, call (520) 300-6860. For more information, visit firstname.lastname@example.org.