Who says casual fine dining is an oxymoron? For nearly three decades, Vivace has welcomed patrons from all walks of life while maintaining an air of exclusivity.
The Foothills restaurant has all the trappings of a special occasion spot. A spacious Italian villa-style building. Floor-to-ceiling windows affording spectacular city and mountain vistas. Beautifully presented and expertly prepared cuisine. A lengthy, carefully curated wine list and a nice selection of craft cocktails. Personalized service.
The only things missing from the conventional definition of fine dining are the stuffiness and the formality.
Chef/owner Daniel Scordato knows about stuffiness and formality. His family moved to Arizona from New Jersey in 1963. In 1972, they opened Scordato’s, a westside restaurant so formal that it had tuxedoed servers doing tableside presentations of Caesar salads. Daniel was involved in the day-to-day operations from age 14.
When he opened his own restaurants — the first one, Daniel’s, when Scordato was 27 — he took a different path.
The original Vivace, opened in the Crossroads Festival shopping center in 1992, was casual chic, stylish but inviting. Vivace’s second incarnation, in St. Philips Plaza, was a bit more upscale, with marbled walls, Italianate columns, and white tablecloths. In 2014, when Vivace took over the space across from La Encantada that Anthony in the Catalinas had occupied for many years, the transformation into a special occasion-friendly venue was complete.
But all the versions of Vivace had in common Scordato’s determination to make everyone feel welcome. "A lot of people do celebrate things here," he said, "but we also have many who come every week. We have young, old, families, singles. I would never want to define any one group as my main base." Nor is there even a tacit dress code, though many take the opportunity to put on the ritz. "We have people who dress up, people who don't dress up, we want them to feel comfortable either way."
The menu is equally inviting for all tastes.
Scordato’s paternal grandparents were from Sicily and Vivace’s website describes the restaurant’s fare as Northern Italian, but the food never really hewed to one regional style — or even, in many cases, to strict Italian traditions. Scordato calls the menu Italian inspired, geared towards American preferences. He still bridles at a long-ago review that derided his entrees as inauthentic because, the critic wrote, "Italians would never eat pasta as a main course, always as a second or third course."
Scordato scoffs, "So I'm going to change the way 99% of the customers in the city eat pasta? We're not in Italy." He buttresses his argument with another example. "Authentic Tuscan bread has no salt in it. But if I gave bread without salt to my customers, they would say, 'What are you doing? This is horrible.'" Scordato surmises that Tuscans didn't put salt in the bread because it was intended to be eaten with prosciutto and salty cheese. "So," he again asks rhetorically, "Am I going to have bread that's really authentic, yet isn't going to please the majority of palates?"
The fact that Vivace is one of the few places in town where you need a reservation for dinner — even in summer and sometimes weeks in advance in high season — offers proof that the food is indeed palate-pleasing.
That’s not to suggest it isn’t also creative. Starters include Fresh Burrata Served Two Ways, half traditional with fresh tomato and basil oil, the other over roasted beets with pistachio vinaigrette. Among the salads is a Pear and Walnut with a gorgonzola option. For main courses, you can choose a house-made lasagnette pasta with seafood and spinach in a basil tomato broth, or a crab-filled chicken breast in demi-glace cream. Such classics as the Grilled Beef Tenderloin get a Marsala wine boost, while entrées like gluten-free Eggplant Lasagna in besciamella sauce and Vegan Bolognese with plant-based meat and Parmesan prove that catering to dietary needs and preferences need not result in boredom.
Because Scordato is fond of checking in with diners, long-time customers tend to offer him menu advice.
Some people ask him to shake things up a bit, while others plead with him never to change a thing. When Scordato asks the change-seekers for specifics, they’re at a loss. “They say, ‘Well you can't take this off, you can't take that off.’”
Scordato admits that it’s a conundrum. You don't want to get stagnant, but you also don’t want to fix what’s not broken.
And so, Scordato says, though he often tries different recipes for the fish of the day, in general, he focuses on updating and tweaking the menu. "I love looking for a better pork, a better cut of meat, a better preparation, a way of making a dish lighter or more flavorful." He cites a discovery he made years ago, "I found brining chicken with a little salt water makes it more tender. No one's going to notice, they just think 'Oh wow this chicken is very tender.'"
Sometimes diners also comment on the décor and table settings. "Once in a while, someone will say things like 'You should have crystal glasses.'" His response? "We’re not pretentious. And if I did those things, I would have to charge a lot more."
As much as it’s important for Scordato to provide guests with high-quality food, it’s also essential for him to offer good value. To that end, he says, "I don’t run specials on a few items, or have a special menu on, say, Valentine’s Day or New Year’s. What about the other 363 days? I’d rather have a product that’s a good value every day of the week."
The staff is on board with Scordato’s goals.
"My employees all take pride in taking care of the customers," he said. "I like to allow them to be themselves, as long as they’re friendly and polite. We don't have any set rules, presentations they’re required to make." In addition, Scordato discourages his servers from pushing high-end items. He tells them, "Don't recommend the most expensive dishes or wines. Recommend what you like."
This type of nonintrusive service keeps people coming back. "That's my biggest thing," said Scordato. "I want long-term customers. A lot of large companies just want to make money money money right now and they don't look at the long-term effect."
Carefully nurturing and improving his restaurant over time, Scordato has managed to check all the boxes: high-quality cuisine, professional but friendly service, and good value in a gorgeous but welcoming setting. It’s no wonder Vivace has been in business for 29 years and is still going strong.
Vivace is located at 6440 N. Campbell Ave. For more information and to make your reservation, call (520) 795-7221 or visit vivacetucson.com.
Edie Jarolim has worn many hats, including a sombrero on a one-too-many-margaritas night. She earned a Ph.D. in American literature from New York University and was a guidebook editor at Fodor’s (Random House) and Frommer’s (Simon & Schuster) in New...