Don't ever change Photo by: James Carbone The Tucci’s Calzone, a baked calzone filled with hot fudge and walnuts, topped with ice cream and hot fudge

Don't ever change

Tarantino’s sticks with what it knows for some of the best Italian food in town

By Erica Wayne 08/14/2008

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It was in the first year of the Pasadena Weekly’s life (1984) that we wrote our original review of Tarantino’s, also in its infancy. Both restaurant and paper have survived and prospered, converting a fair number of Pasadena citizens into devotees in the process. The Weekly’s undergone several major facelifts over the past 24 years. Not so, Tarantino’s. There's been barely a ripple in menu, price or ambiance.

Back then we reported that Dan Tarantino, the owner and head chef, had found his inspiration in family recipes handed down for generations. His Neapolitan grandmother was credited as a primary source. But calzoni and stromboli and stuffed pizzas were things he had eaten in other places (he was raised on the East Coast) and had never seen in California.

Frankly, neither had we. Tarantino’s was just about the most innovative pizzeria to have hit Pasadena. Years before California Pizza Kitchen, Tarantino’s was turning out seafood, spinach and other oddly dressed pizzas made with a rich, yeasty, thinly thrown but substantial crust. They also made a damn good pepperoni and cheese. Needless to say, folks flocked.

They still do. Despite the fact that Tarantino’s takes only cash. Despite the fact that seating, if you don't get there early enough to get one of the smaller side tables, is at a long table running the length of the claustrophobically small space, usually as stuffed as one of Tarantino’s calzoni. (We dropped by last Tuesday at 7:30 and got the last open table in the place. On TUESDAY, forgodsake!)
I have no idea if Dan still owns Tarantino’s; if he doesn’t, whoever’s in charge hasn’t hurt a thing. The food’s still plentiful and tasty; the staff is still friendly and efficient and the atmosphere is still casual and inviting. Unlike the rest of the country, where “change we can believe in” is a dire necessity, Tarantino’s is handling the 21st century’s stresses just fine.

The decor hasn’t  changed  much either, with red and white checked (plastic) tablecloths, brick-faced and white walls with red moldings, and wainscoting, acoustic ceiling  and concrete floor all painted a deep green. There are hanging Coca-Cola Tiffany lamps and ceiling fans, lots of multicolored neon beer signs and a slew of autographed pictures from satisfied celebs.

There’s nothing better than the classic pizza ($14.50 for a 16-inch, with $1.50 for each topping). I’ve ordered Grandma Tony’s ($2 more) and, frankly, can’t get very excited about the subtle differences in the “extra special sauce.” My advice: save the money and order another beer (Peroni on tap is excellent!) instead.

If you do want something different, try the pizza with shrimp, garlic, tomato and basil (Tucci’s Special — $20.75); or the Florentine, $19.75 — touted on the menu as “winner of best gourmet pizza at several cook offs.” The spinach thereon will make you feel virtuous, provide iron and sop up the oil from the “various imported cheeses” that make up the rest of the toppings.

Other pizza dough creations include calzoni ($9.50), stromboli (rolled with cheeses, cappacola, pepperoni, mushrooms and onions, topped with sauce — $10.50), stuffed pizza  (carmine — $9.50) with an idiosyncratic filling of cheeses, meats, tomato, onion and sesame seeds, or supremo bread (stuffed with mortadella, salami, pepperoni, cheeses and peppers, then baked with poppy seeds — $9.50).

Linguine with clams ($11.25) is a real bargain, as good as some almost twice the price. So is the puttanesca ($10.50), although it’d be even better with salt-cured olives. Pasta paisano (onions, garlic, red pepper, sausage and parsley in tomato sauce — $10.50) is overwhelming but, since I'm not overly fond of Tarantino’s sausage, or anybody else’s for that matter, I’d rather have my pasta topped with garlic, oil, parsley, anchovies and red pepper ($8.25).

Speaking of anchovies, Tarantino’s Caesar ($5.50/$8.25) dressing doesn’t stint on them, nor on garlic or Parmesan. It’s really one of the best non-table-prepared versions I’ve tasted. But so is the dressing that coats the romaine in the salad included with most entrees. The red wine vinegar-olive oil base is tart and intense; Italian herbs lend verve. If I had the recipe, I don’t think I’d ever improvise.

I’ve always wanted to order Tucci’s Calzone ($6.75), filled with hot fudge and walnuts, topped with ice cream and hot fudge, but never had room. Last week I had our waiter pack up most of my pasta so we could try it. The pizza crust worked surprisingly well with the nuts and chocolate. But the extra calories did leave us feeling a little more guilty than usual.

Nor have we indulged in the all-you-can-eat extravaganzas (Monday night, Stromboli — $11; Tuesday, spaghetti and supremo — $10.50; Wednesday, calzone — $11; Thursday, carmine — $11). But, hey, it’s nice to know they’re there, another proof of Tarantino’s unceasing generosity to its patrons over the years.

As Tarantino’s states on the front of the menu: “Beautiful food, simply prepared and shared with family and friends. It’s one of the most basic and satisfying pleasures of life. All that’s needed is a warm heart, a keen eye for the best ingredients and a sense of adventure to lead you to a place at our table.”

I could not have said it better myself!

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