24 January, 2022, 06:28

Family-run Raptor Canyon Cafe warms hearts with home-style cooking

The downtown restaurant has a largely scratch-made kitchen.

The Calellos are nice people. Like really nice people. I mean, Konni Calello is “still slipping chocolate chip cookies into your pockets while you’re walking out the door” kind of nice.

She used to send boxes of homemade baked goods to her sons, Ken and Frank, while they were students at the University of Arizona. Now, she can serve them right out of the restaurant kitchen, because Ken and Frank are the cooks at Raptor Canyon Café.

Ken said that he was the one who talked the rest of the family into opening a restaurant.

The Calello family at Raptor Canyon Cafe (Credit: Jackie Tran)

The Calello family at Raptor Canyon Cafe (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Dennis Calello, Konni’s husband, is the face of Raptor Canyon and the first one to greet guests who walk in the door with a big, “Hello!” He runs the business side, having worked on Wall Street. Konni bakes all of the brownies, layer bars, cookies, and desserts.

The older son, Frank, runs lunch, and the youngest, Ken, is in charge of breakfast. They both have professional experience running kitchens (and inherited the nice gene from their mom).

Originally from New Jersey, Dennis and Konni followed their kids out to Tucson. When they decided to open Raptor Canyon Café in September 2018, they wanted it to be a family-run restaurant with a focus on scratch-made home cooking. The name Raptor Canyon came from their love of birds of prey, a symbol of the family’s migration westward.

Scratch-made menu

From breakfast sandwiches and burritos at breakfast to wraps, salads, plates, pasta, and a mac and cheese menu for lunch, the menu is extensive. Even the sides menu goes on and on, with corn dogs, fried pickles, onion rings, and chips.

Everything is homemade. The chips—both tortilla and potato—as well as the granola (for the parfait), the salsa, the french fries, the tomato sauce in the pasta dishes, the gravy, the biscuits—and the biscuits are amazing.

Spaghetti and Meatballs at Raptor Canyon Cafe (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Spaghetti and Meatballs at Raptor Canyon Cafe (Credit: Jackie Tran)

“We could just buy from a restaurant depot,” Ken said, “but to really make it, it gives it that home feel. So the extra steps are worth it.”

One of the breakfast items is simply called One Egg Biscuit with Meat and Cheese. While the components are simple, you’ll be ordering “just one more” more than once. The fluffy, golden, slightly salty, buttered-and-grilled homemade buttermilk biscuits come with your choice of meat, a fried egg, and a slice of melt-all-over American cheese.

One Egg Biscuit with Meat (Pork Roll) and Cheese at Raptor Canyon Cafe (Credit: Jackie Tran)

One Egg Biscuit with Meat (Pork Roll) and Cheese at Raptor Canyon Cafe (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Although you have a choice of meat, the right choice is pork roll—a political concept. It’s really called Taylor Ham in North Jersey, and Pork Roll in South Jersey. Although it’s unfair to relate it to other breakfast meat, it’s somewhere between Canadian bacon and fried bologna. It’s smoky, salty, and slightly crisp around the edges, layered with a fried egg and American cheese. It sticks to your bones in just the right way.

Heirloom recipes

Not only is almost everything homemade, but the recipes are heirlooms, family recipes handed down for generations. The menu at Raptor Canyon Cafe incorporates Konni’s Norwegian heritage recipes with Dennis’ Italian family recipes. For example, the tomato sauce is a recipe from Dennis’ side, while Konni adds her own touch and passes it on to Frank and Ken. The boys also add to the family recipes; most recently, Frank brought on a recipe for salsa that he learned from a Mexican family.

Because they’re East Coasters, Raptor Canyon offers a lot of East Coast food (and some things you can’t get anywhere else). One menu item (on the sides section) that stands out is the Cheese Curds, otherwise known as squeaky cheese. It’s a principle part of the fries-gravy-cheese curd combination that makes up poutine in Quebec. It’s also a county fair staple in the dairy states of the Midwest and Northeast.

Rainbow Philly Ice at Raptor Canyon Cafe

Rainbow Philly Ice at Raptor Canyon Cafe (photo by Dana Sullivan)

Another discovered treasure is Philadelphia Water Ice. It’s kind of like Italian ice, but gooier and served in a cute little cup with a tiny spoon. Ken suggests the cotton candy flavor, which comes out bubble gum pink and is delicately sweet. There are also flavors like blueberry, coconut, watermelon, and rainbow. Philadelphia Water Ice should be the next big Tucson summer fare, but for right now it’s just a sweet, little, photogenic secret.

Bottomless coffee paired with Konni’s cookies

It’s important to mention that there is bottomless coffee, and it magically gets refilled frequently so it’s hard to tell just how much you’ve had. It pairs exceedingly well with the classic chocolate chip cookies that Konni makes, the soft, fudgy cookie dough sweetening up a sip of hot coffee and melting the chocolate.

There are patio tables set up for outside seating, and the lace curtains are what draw people in, hinting at cozy homestyle cooking. The inside has booth seating and lace tablecloths with sandstone-colored walls. Dennis and Konni mill around, refilling cups and bringing over glasses of chilled cucumber water. It’s comfortable and unrushed and makes you feel taken care of.

Interior at Raptor Canyon Cafe (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Interior at Raptor Canyon Cafe (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Raptor Canyon has quickly welcomed regular guests. They say it’s like Grandma’s house.

“Our customers are wonderful,” Konni said. “They’re very friendly and they get to be like family. You get to know them, and you get to know names. Frank said that the people of Tucson embrace that family unit. And they would go to a family establishment before they would go to a corporate place, and it’s true.”

Customers have said to Konni, “Be sure to tell the boys it’s really good food. This was the best food I’ve had in a long time.” And in 2019, customers brought them Christmas gifts of Mexican lemons grown on their tree and homemade tamales.

Konni Calello with cookies at Raptor Canyon Cafe (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Konni Calello with cookies at Raptor Canyon Cafe (Credit: Jackie Tran)

But running a family business can be very challenging, they admit.

“If you’re not in sync with one another, you all feel it,” Konni continued. “We can tell when somebody’s off. I can’t take it personally. At the end of the day, we congratulate each other on a great job, great day and say ‘love you and see you tomorrow.’”

Location and hours

Raptor Canyon Café, located at 75 E. Pennington St., is open from 7:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 6:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m. on Friday.

For more information, visit raptorcanyoncafe.com. If you’re in a rush, there is a text-ahead service for pickup at (520) 336-5698 that goes straight to their business phone.

Meredith O'Neil is a barista and radio host who likes to ride bikes and spend time with her spaniel, George.