For a long time, Daniel Scordato had hamburger envy.
When the chef/restaurateur of Vivace and other Italian-focused eateries was asked why he made the shift to a beef patty-centric menu at his new Uptown Burger, Scordato replied, “I would see these restaurants doing burgers, and they were always busy. I was jealous.”
He cited Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers as another example of specialization leading to success. “They make chicken fingers. That’s it. They don’t even have chicken breasts. And they’re doing $5 million, $6 million a store.”
Compared to the generous menu of Vivace, located just two minutes north, Uptown Burger’s offerings are limited: six burgers, two sandwiches, five salads, plus variations on soft-serve gelato for dessert. The bar list is similarly minimalist, consisting of six craft beers and eight select wines by the glass. And the format is fast casual: Diners order from a touch screen — with help from staff if needed — and get their food on a cardboard dish that can be transformed into a to-go box with the addition of a lid.
But Uptown Burger bears little resemblance to any link in a corporate chain. As you might expect from a restaurant bearing the Scordato name, this Foothills dining room doesn’t sacrifice quality for convenience. The small but stylish dining room and adjoining patio with Santa Catalina vistas, not to mention understated Italian influences on the menu, raise this place well above standard burger joint status.
While Scordato doesn’t claim to be the sole originator of some of the more creative burgers–there’s very little new under the culinary sun, he observed – the kitchen turns out several you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else in town. Take, for example, the French Dip, heaping toasted ciabatta bread with melted Brie, caramelized onions, sauteed mushrooms, and horseradish sauce, and siding it with beef au jus for a delectable dunk.
Also served on ciabatta, the Tuscan, with roasted eggplant, marinated mozzarella, chopped tomatoes, and pesto, is a savory nod to Scordato’s Italian roots, while the Sonoran, featuring roasted poblanos, Oaxacan cheese, creamy jalapeno, avocado, and fresh corn on a brioche bun, lends local zest to the American classic.
Scordato credits his nephew, Chef Justin Fitzsimons, with helping to concoct the toppings of the latter two burgers. With the Tuscan, he noted, “Justin said ‘Let’s add eggplant.’ I wasn’t sure, but he was right. It really gives the burger a nice umami taste, and it melts right in.”
It was also Fitzsimons’s idea to add corn to the Sonoran. Scordato noted that, along with French fries and sweet potato fries, the restaurant offers a side of fresh grilled sweet corn, so it made sense to use it for a burger too. He added, “And it really added a lot of flavor and a little crunch.”
Fitzsimons plays a far larger role at Uptown Burger than collaborating on toppings. He is a part owner and, Scordato said, will soon be on his own there as general manager to supervise the kitchen and greet guests. “In the beginning, I wanted to be here to help and it was good that we put both our minds together before opening [in early December]. Now I mainly work on Justin’s days off.”
Call it the return of the prodigal nephew. Fitzsimons grew up in Lake Oswego, near Portland, Oregon, where Scordato’s sister, Patricia, moved from Tucson with her husband in the early 1980s. Inheriting the family’s cooking gene and developing a case of wanderlust, he attended the Culinary Institute in Florence, Italy; worked at several cutting-edge restaurants in Portland; and opened the short-lived Amalour in St Philip’s Plaza in Tucson, before becoming the general manager at the iconic Greenblatt’s Deli on Sunset Boulevard (recently closed). Deciding Los Angeles was not a good place to raise a new baby, he and his family moved back to Tucson, where he had helped out at several of his uncle Daniel’s restaurants over the years.
It was Fitzsimons’s suggestion to introduce the meat that sets Uptown Burger apart from the herd: Piedmontese beef, which he calls the “Wagyu of Italy.”
He is alluding to quality and geographical association rather than the fat content that characterizes the Japanese beef. In fact, Fitzsimons explained, “Piedmontese is super lean. And while most super lean meat is tough, this is the opposite, very tender and flavorful.” He learned about it early on. “My mother lived in Florence long ago and she would talk about the delicious steaks she used to eat there, from Piedmontese beef.” Aware that Piedmontese cows had been brought over to the US to be bred and sold, Fitzsimons knew they were a perfect fit for this new Scordato venture: high-quality, health-conscious, and Italian in origin.
While beef is the centerpiece, it’s far from the only praiseworthy item on the menu. Along with the Fusion Impossible Burger, adding mushroom, spinach, and spices to the patty to mitigate the meat-like texture and taste that many vegans eschew, there are the Nashville Chicken sandwich, crispy hot and slightly sweet; and the Grilled Ahi Tuna Steak sandwich with Asian slaw and sesame dressing.
Salads range from an American mix-it-up like the Cobb Wedge—with such elements of the Cobb as hardboiled egg, bacon, and diced tomato added to the iceberg-and-blue cheese steakhouse standard—to the Italian-inspired Grape and Gorgonzola and Antipasto salads.
Also in keeping with the subtle inclusion of Italian elements: soft-serve gelato, rather than ice cream, anchors the dessert menu. You can order it in floats, shakes, or topped with the likes of Oreo crumbles, rainbow sprinkles, and caramel sauce. The Orange Creamsicle shake, made with fresh squeezed orange juice and topped with whipped cream, is likely to invoke memories of the Good Humor treat in those of us old enough to recall the sound of the truck’s distinctive jingle coming down the street.
In the end, it was simplicity that Scordato was seeking with this new concept. Some locals may recall the brief residence in the same location of another Scordato restaurant, Posto Sano, opened five weeks before lockdown and lasting just a year. According to Scordato, it wasn’t just the pandemic but the ambitiousness of the menu that led to Posto Sano’s demise. “The problem was that there was a lot of prep involved in making things like cauliflower mushroom risotto, meatballs in tomato sauce, dough for Roman pizza…. It was too much to do in a little kitchen. It didn’t make sense, even if we are packed. And now I learned.”
With the patronage of the many customers who are loyal to the restaurateur, the assistance of a family member with abundant management and kitchen skills, and the consistency and quality of the food, Uptown Burger should fulfill all of Daniel Scordato’s hamburger hankerings — and ours.
Uptown Burger is located at 6370 N. Campbell Ave. #160. For more information, visit uptownburgertucson.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...