18 October, 2019, 05:48

After 40 years, Northeast Tucson’s Bazil’s still delights

An intimate atmosphere, Chicago-inspired Italian and continental cuisine, and impeccable service make Bazil's once traditional form of dining, a standout upscale treat

There was a time when fine dining in Tucson meant extensive menus, a quiet atmosphere, cloth napkins, impeccable service, complimentary bread, antipasto, and soup. Local old timers fondly remember the days of feasting at such bygone restaurants as Palomino or The Tack Room.

While few such culinary institutions still exist in the area, one of them is quietly celebrating its 40th anniversary. In this era of super casual, drive-through fast food, minimalist cafes, food trucks, and UPS-delivered meals services, Bazil’s remains an authentic fine dining institution.

Interior at Bazil's

Interior at Bazil’s (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Their reputation is well earned. Bazil’s extensive menu of pasta, meat, seafood, and dishes like frog legs and escargot, are nearly impossible to find in most area restaurants today. And, of course, de rigueur for such pedigree establishments, cloth napkins, soft lighting, and entrees served with complimentary soup, antipasto, and fresh-baked rolls. As one patron recently put it, “[Bazil’s is] just like treasured restaurants used to be … but better.”

One welcome, if unadvertised, feature of the fine dining experience at Bazil’s is serenity.
National polls show that the number one complaint of restaurant goers over the age of 50, which represents a significant segment of the U.S. restaurant-going population, is noise.

“I can’t hear myself think in that place” is a common refrain of clientele in reference to many contemporary restaurant dining rooms. Online customer reviews are replete with grievances like, “While we enjoyed the food at [name of restaurant], the din was overwhelming. Having any discussion [at our table] without shouting was impossible.”

Bazil’s, even when packed to capacity, offers one of metropolitan Tucson’s most serene dining experiences. And that’s by design. The floors are carpeted, the high ceilings are sound-absorbing, and most tables are arranged in booth-like spaces (complete with Tiffany-style lights, individually controlled to the diner’s preference), all of which go a long way toward facilitating easy dinnertime conversation.

Restaurant co-owner Sandy Bazil, who oversees the front of the house, reports that guests — “younger, as well as older” — tell her regularly, “This is about the only restaurant where we can go out with friends and actually hear each other over dinner.”

“When customers tell us that eating here reminds them of wonderful dining experiences from the past, it is a great compliment,” said owner Max Bazil “We offer exceptional food, comfortable seating, and attentive service. We’ve taken pride over these years knowing that eating and drinking at Bazil’s is a fun and special experience.”

Dining out at good restaurants is something Max has treasured since his boyhood days in Chicago.

“Back when I was a kid, my dad would say, ‘Let’s go to dinner; get in the car,’ and then he’d drive somewhere — wherever. Distance and time were never important; going someplace nice that served great food was.”

By the time the family moved to Tucson, Max was a teenager. His parents Bill and Bebe decided to open their own restaurant — the kind of place they, enjoyed eating at.

“Our goal has always been to serve the finest food in a pleasant, comfortable space.”

While the restaurant’s initial location was on Speedway Boulevard near Country Club Road, the family relocated to Tucson’s foothills in 1988.

“Customers who lived north of the city kept telling us, ‘There is no place like yours up there,” Max recalled. So the family leased and renovated vacated retail space in what was then a sleepy, corner shopping center at North Swan Road and East Sunrise Drive. “People couldn’t wait for us to open.”

The location was new, but the family recreated an interior nearly identical to their midtown location Much of the menu remained the same, too. “Italian & Continental, with the best martini in Tucson,” was how the restaurant was — and remains — branded.

While accurate, the moniker doesn’t begin to capture the breadth and depth — much less the quality — of the food on Bazil’s menu. There are ten appetizers — including everything from clams steamed in a delicate, flavorful wine and garlic sauce to classic French escargot to fanciful toasted ravioli, 8 veal entrees, 9 different pasta options, 5 chicken dishes, and 7 seafood offerings.

And that list doesn’t include the 5 varieties of steak (including sliced filet mignon sauteed in butter, whimsically titled “Sister Mary Joseph”) plus “specials,” like baby back ribs, broiled Italian sausage, eggplant parmigiana and rolled eggplant (sliced and stuffed with ricotta and fine Parmesan cheese). And for the more adventurous gourmand: butter-sauteed frog legs.

New York Strip at Bazil's

New York Strip at Bazil’s (Photo by Jackie Tran)

When customers protest that they can’t decide what to order, Sandy Bazil suggests that they “please return — to try everything.” And most do. Bazil’s has always had leagues of loyal, local patrons, some from families that include the children and grandchildren of original patrons, to newcomers to Tucson in search of “a complete dining experience.”

Among the many Bazil’s favorites is Lemon Garlic Chicken, a delight to the eyes as well as taste buds. This lavish entree is prepared with juicy, boneless chicken breasts stuffed with provolone and sauteed in lemon, garlic, and white wine. Served with delectably roasted potatoes, the dish may be, itself, a good reason to pay Bazil’s a visit.

Any meat lover reluctant to order beef from such an eclectic, largely Italian-themed menu, would be making a serious mistake. Bazil’s, is known for its several varieties of steaks — all prime beef. One can’t go wrong with the New York Strip Steak, considered by many the most tender and flavorful cut.

Bazil’s New York strip is not camouflaged with anything extraneous. This is a true beefeater’s steak, cooked to temperature, delivered sizzling hot, and bathed in its own delectable juices. As a diner at a table near the restaurant’s cozy bar told us, “Perfect! I order this steak every time I’m here. A great New York Strip, a glass of nice wine, and I’m a happy guy.”

While multiple entrees could compete for an official “house specialty” designation, the honor goes to Bazil’s cioppino. Often thought of as a dish from old Italy, cioppino was actually first made in 19th century San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, where fishermen, returning home from their boats, contributed whatever fresh seafood they could spare to pots of tomato-based brew.

A seemingly simple dish, pedestrian cioppino often disappoints: chewy seafood submerged in a near-tasteless broth. Genuinely majestic cioppino, on the other hand, is something else entirely — made with the freshest seafood and steeped in rich, savory sauce.

Tucsonans have been making their way to Bazil’s for years for its cioppino. And it’s a truly regal dish. A tureen overflows with lobster, shrimp, clams, crab, scallops, and tender fillets of white fish, all sauteed in ambrosial jus. While the restaurant’s chef calls the coulis’ exact ingredients “proprietary” information, it almost certainly includes wine, garlic, and tomatoes — producing a fine marinara, perfectly balancing the succulent fruit de mer.

Cioppino at Bazil's

Cioppino at Bazil’s (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Diners who prefer pasta with their seafood will be delighted by Bazil’s Shrimp & Scallops with Fettuccine. This popular dish from Italy includes a bountiful serving of fresh shrimp and scallops tossed with sweet red bell peppers, garlic, and asparagus. It’s all suffused by a rich, gorgonzola white wine cream sauce on a bed of perfectly prepared fettuccini.

(Beware: Bazil’s servings are quite generous, and the wait staff cheerfully provide take-home containers.)

Like the ancient Roman god, Janus, Bazil’s presents two rather different faces to the world. Around the corner from the classy restaurant is its informal, more boisterous twin — Bazil’s To Go — which turns out some of the most revered pizza in the metropolitan area. Despite the proliferation of new pizza parlors throughout their neighborhood in recent years, Bazil’s steaming, succulent, cheese-topped pies remain the prized choice of a multitude of locals.

Devotees of Bazil’s pizza tend to be fanatical. Crowding the counter at Bazil’s To Go, with its bright neon sign, located just a few yards from Sunrise Drive, pizza-seeking patrons sing its praises.

“The best in town. No: the best anywhere!”

“Freshest ingredients.”

“Yummy cheese!”

“The sausage! You gotta get the sausage!”

“I guarantee there will be pieces missing by the time I get this baby home!”

Bazil's Special Pizza at Bazil's

Bazil’s Special Pizza at Bazil’s (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Pizza lovers have been lining up for these pies since Max Bazil opened the doors to the restaurant’s annex in 1991. Popular from the start, when there was little pizza-making competition north of River Road, 28 years later the informal take-out spot remains as well-loved as ever.

Whether picking up a choice pie from the young, cheery staff, conversing with the gregarious Max Bazil (often directing preparations behind the counter), or taking advantage of free delivery (to most locations in the area), the reward is equally satisfying. Its many devotees are quite clear: there is no other pizza quite like Bazil’s.

[Note: pizza, while not on the formal restaurant’s menu, can be ordered to eat in Bazil’s lounge, where it is not unusual to find locals watching sports on the cozy bar’s three giant TV monitors, cold beer and hot pizza in hand.]

The best-seller, at the top of the menu, is Bazil’s Special: a uniquely crispy, Chicago thin-style crust, overflowing with fresh sausage, roasted red peppers, onions, and mushrooms. The favorite feature may be the final topping: a pie-enveloping blanket of delectably rich parmesan cheese. Bazil’s pizza is singularly recognizable by its rectangular-cut pieces and its near-glowing, resplendent coating of cheese.

Artichoke Shrimp Pizza at Bazil's

Artichoke Shrimp Pizza at Bazil’s (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Listed on the Bazil’s To Go menu are also a number of “gourmet” pizzas — among them Chicken-Cheddar-Green Chiles, Cheddar-Bacon, and 5 Cheese-Roasted Red Peppers. One customer favorite is the Artichoke-Shrimp pizza, which, in addition to its titled ingredients, includes fresh Roma tomatoes, cheese, olive oil, and fresh garlic.

In addition to pizza, Bazil’s To Go offers pasta dishes, salads, sandwiches, and calzones.

Whether it’s a special night out with family and friends in Bazil’s posh but comfortable restaurant, or taking pizza home from its To Go corner noshery, this foothills institution has earned its 40-year-old reputation for churning out some of the most delicious culinary delights in the Old Pueblo.

Bazil’s is located at 4777 East Sunrise Drive, Suite 119 and open from 5 to 9 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. For more information, call (520) 577-3322 or visit bazilstucson.com.

Max is a Tucson artist, painting colorful, textured abstracts; a writer, and a former non-profit executive. He loves food and sharing it with his wife. Their three dogs eat kibble. Mostly.

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