Creative Fare: Zio Peppe offers its own take on Italian food

By Valerie Vinyard

Stacks of 55-pound bags of high-quality Caputo pizza flour greet customers when they first walk into Zio Peppe, a new “gourmet-casual” Italian restaurant that opened for dining on June 1 on Tucson’s east side.

Zio Peppe is helmed by chefs Devon Sanner and Mat Cable, two Tucsonans with a wealth of experience in the kitchen.

“We wanted to have this be a celebration of Tucson,” says Sanner, 47. “We didn’t want to do haphazard fusion.”

You might recognize Sanner’s name from his time serving as the chef for Janos Wilder’s restaurants, Janos, Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails and Carriage House for almost 15 years collectively. Cable is a restaurant maven himself, as he owns Fresco Pizzeria and First We Eat Catering & Confections and partly owns Dante’s Fire on East Grant Road.

“We tried to have it be comfort food and approachable but also swing for the fences,” says the 43-year-old Cable, who noted that Zio Peppe is named after his Uncle Joe. “The focus is on food. But we’re not just throwing local ingredients at dishes. We still wanted things to be exceptional.”

Zio Peppe, located in the spot that most recently housed Fire N’ Smoke, features a menu full of well-priced Italian dishes and pizzas. Once you read more closely, you’ll see the Southwest and local touches that many of the dishes contain.

In the Figgy Stardust ($17), Zio Peppe’s most popular pizza, local figs complement housemade fresh mozzarella, honey and chamomile goat cheese, topped with a pomegranate drizzle.

Customers order at the front, but a variety of option booths, tables and chairs are available for dining inside and outside the restaurant. In the back is a bar with a half-dozen stools; Zio Peppe only offers beer and wine, though it plans to offer a full bar in the future.

Among menu options is the elote arancini ($8), which is five delicate fried balls of street corn and risotto, queso fresco and topped with lime crema.

A bottle of red wine from Arizona’s Flying Leap Vineyards ($32) pairs well with Rotini of the Mac, a smoked salami macaroni and cheese entree that can be served in a focaccia bread bowl.

But it’s the tasty twists on Italian classics that will guarantee return visits. Take the Prickly Pickle ($17) pizza, which employs a combination of nopales, cholla buds, red onion escabeche, bacio and guajillo crema. Or there’s the Zo Pizza ($16), which includes housemade beef chorizo, chile Colorado and a house cheese blend. There’s also the Banderas ($16), which comes topped with smoked turkey, red and green chiles and garlic crema with a smoked cheese blend. The Bianca Pizza ($16) is a robust pie with ricotta, fresh mozzarella, fennel sausage, local BKW Farms blue oyster mushrooms, pecorino and EVOO.

Picky or nonadventurous eaters can choose among a comforting margherita pizza ($15) with fresh mozzarella, Stanislaus tomatoes and basil; a build-your-own pizza that starts at $13.50; or a pleasing fettuccine Alfredo ($13).

Handmade pastas are also on the menu, such as the restaurant’s green chile pappardelle and Peppe marinara ($15) and linguine ($18) with shrimp, cilantro and basil pesto.

Not many Tucson Italian restaurants offer risotto entrees, but Zio Peppe features two: a seafood risotto ($24) — with slow-roasted tomatoes, goat horn peppers and basil oil — and a mushroom risotto ($17), which includes local BKW Farms blue oyster mushrooms, pecorino, portobellos, smoked poblanos, truffle zest and allium.

“What a great place,” says 27-year-old Edith Johnson, a Tucsonan who has dined twice at Zio Peppe so far. “This is a great addition to the east side.”

Johnson, who works at a call center, said she likes the fact that the restaurant offers its handmade pastas for a reasonable price.

“There aren’t a lot of places where you can get a delicious, filling and homemade meal for under $20,” she says. “I almost would like to keep it a secret so it doesn’t get too busy.”