Remembering local culinary legend, Don Luria

December 27, 2022
By Rita Connelly

The passing of Don Luria is a huge loss to Tucson and while his name might not ring a bell to a younger, newer-to-Tucson crowd, those of us who were around during the heyday of Café Terra Cotta know we’ve lost a legend. 

Don Luria (Photo courtesy The Luria Family)
Don Luria (Photo courtesy The Luria Family)

Over the years, I had the pleasure of interviewing Luria on numerous occasions.  He was always warm, affable, and full of wonderful stories. 

And he was a sharp dresser, very easy to pick out in a crowded room thanks to his brightly-colored shirts and sports jackets. And if the clothes reflect the man, Luria most certainly stood out in the crowd in many, many ways.


Luria, along with his wife Donna Nordin, opened Café Terra Cotta in 1986 at a time when Tucson’s only claim to culinary fame was Mexican fare and steak houses. 

To say that Café Terra Cotta changed the dining scene in Tucson is an understatement. 

Luria and Nordin met in 1985 when she came to town to teach a cooking class at his school, Tasting Spoon Cooking School

Donna Nordin and Don Luria (Photo courtesy The Luria Family)
Donna Nordin and Don Luria (Photo courtesy The Luria Family)

Nordin had established a following in San Francisco as an innovative chef but Luria charmed her by suggesting they open a restaurant together. So, she moved to Tucson. They ran Gourmet to Go for several years and then took the giant step and opened Café Terra Cotta in 1986 in St. Philip’s Plaza. The restaurant was an instant hit, both locally and nationally.

Nordin helmed the kitchen and Luria the business end. “He called himself the Chef d’Paperwork,” she said.

Local chefs who came up through the Café Terra Cotta kitchen include Jeff Azersky and Marianne Banes of Kingfisher, Doug Levy of Feast, Anthony “Rocco” DiGrazia of Rocco’s Little Chicago, and many more. James Beard award-winner, Scottsdale chef Charleen Badman, also got her start there.

Café Terra Cotta went through changes over the years including a move to a freestanding building a bit further east, a name change to simply Terra Cotta, and a comeback from a major fire. The last dinner was served in 2007 with no regrets.


As much as a major impact the restaurant made, it was Luria’s other brainchild that changed dining in Tucson in ways we still see it today.

Luria, along with a host of other local movers and shakers, created Tucson Originals.

Photo courtesy of Don Luria on Facebook
Photo courtesy of Don Luria on Facebook

Tucson Originals came about in 1998 when then-City Councilman, Steve Leal, read an article about the massive growth of chain restaurants in Tucson. He was afraid with the influx of chains that local independent restaurants would be pushed out. He wanted to preserve the “flavors of Tucson.”

He called together Luria, Alan Zeman of Fuego, John Jacob of El Parador, and other influential restaurateurs to find a solution. John Hudak of Madden Publishing was also at the table. 

Luria later joked that he left the room to go to the restroom and the others had voted him president by the time he came back. But Luria was perfect for the post. He was a businessman with years of experience and he knew everybody in town. 

The idea for Tucson Originals was to expand buying power among the group, create an awareness of Tucson’s unique offerings, increase public awareness of the economic and social contributions independent restaurants make to the community, and to educate the next generation. 

Hudak offered to run full-page, color ads for one year at no cost to the restaurants. This was a major plus. There were rules and guidelines for members, of course, but within a month, Luria had secured 35 restaurants.

Giving back to the community was also a major part of the plan and the group adopted the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona as a way to get food on the tables of those who didn’t have the resources to dine out.

Many people credit being able to stay in business because of Luria and the Tucson Originals. And while the scope has changed over the years, Luria’s influence remains.


Luria was active on the boards of numerous community and arts organizations. He was president of many of them.

“We were counting them today and we came up with over 20,” said his son, Michael Luria. “We” being him and Donna Nordin.

Photo courtesy of Don Luria on Facebook
Photo courtesy of Don Luria on Facebook

Included were the Community Food Bank, Tucson Pima Arts Council, Tucson Museum of Art, Arizona Theatre Company, and Ballet Tucson to name a few.

“He helped create the Ponies del Pueblo Project,” said Nordin, “He chaired the culinary committee for the Tucson Festival of Books. He was responsible for bringing all the big-name authors to town.” 


“He was full of ideas, a visionary,” said Nordin, “He was always trying to find ways to better the community.”

Michael Luria agreed. “He was so community-focused,” he said. “ He was philanthropic through and through. He was all about Tucson.”

Tucson will miss Don Luria but his contributions will continue to be a part of both the culinary scene and the larger community of Tucson for many years to come.

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Article By

Rita Connelly is the author of “Lost Restaurants of Tucson,” “Historic Restaurants of Tucson,” and “Arizona Chimichangas,”all published by The History Press. Growing up in a large Italian family instilled in her an appreciation for the important role food plays...

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