Driving through Tucson, one notices an abundance of colorful restaurant signs inhabiting the city’s crowded streets. Familiar corporate logos can be found on every corner alongside local chains and family owned establishments. Not only are there endless places to dine at, a common theme seems to connect many eateries on these cluttered roads; most menus are not centralized around a healthy diet. Between your typical fast-food staples, and the inexhaustible (although delightful) Mexican venues, it can be nearly impossible to enjoy a delicious yet healthy meal while dining out.

Picazzo’s Organic Italian Kitchen defies these stereotypes. By offering a 97-percent gluten-free menu, while providing dishes for all types of diets, it renders a uniquely healthy, yet appetizing dining experience—one that I have not been able to find anywhere else in Tucson.

Picazzo’s only uses organically grown produce, and hormone-free and nitrate-free meats; even many of the wines offered are made with organically grown grapes. The pasta dishes, breads, and croutons are gluten-free, which appeals directly to people who cannot consume gluten (most notably those suffering from celiac disease). Another concept the restaurant adheres to, explained general manager, Micah Salminen, is called “local first.” Whenever possible, Picazzo’s implements local products into their recipes. For example, they use Queen Creek Olive Mill’s olive oil, Stanley’s meats from Phoenix, and gluten-free flour found in Sedona.

Their menu is extensive and includes a nice variety of appetizers, salads, organic gluten-free pasta, baked pastas and pizzas.

Until my most recent visit, the pizza portion was my favorite, as it allows the diner to get creative. There are six types of crusts to choose from, three styles to decipher through (Neapolitan, Specialty Gourmet, and Vegetarian), or you can make your own by choosing from a long list of toppings.

I’ve experimented with many of the possibilities before, and even ordered the gluten-free crust just to see what it was like. Unexpectedly it was quite crispy, buttery and tasty. I would definitely order it again. Also, I especially recommend the Neapolitan style pizza called Sweet and Sassy, which includes organic tomato sauce, mozzarella and ricotta cheeses, topped with Peppadew peppers.

On this particular visit however, my guest and I felt compelled to venture through the menu. We began with the Caprese appetizer ($10), which proved to be an original take on this Italian classic. Instead of appearing as a traditional, sliced salad, cherry tomatoes and mozzarella balls were served on three skewers, just like kebobs. A fresh basil leaf separated each piece, and the dish was garnished with balsamic glaze and gluten-free, flat bread crostinis. It became clear why this particular recipe was considered an appetizer, as it was more of a hands-on eating experience with fun presentation.

For our next course we shared the half-size portion of the gluten-free Berry-licious salad, which consisted of organic mixed greens, spinach, strawberries, oranges, feta, glazed walnuts, and berry-balsamic dressing.

We were apprehensive to share, but the half-size proved to be an extremely large portion of food; so large that we could not finish it. In fact, I’m not sure I see a time where I would ever order the full size, but when you’re already under the impression that you’re paying a little extra money for quality ingredients, it’s nice when generous servings accompany the prices. However, these salads are reasonably priced. (A half portion is $7, and a whole salad costs around $11).

After hearing many people rave about the gluten-free, Spicy Thai Peanut & Chicken dish with rotelli pasta, organic carrots and peas, almonds, broccolini, and a spicy Thai peanut sauce, I ordered it for our main course. Despite having a decent amount of spice, (in my opinion, it could have been spicier), this dish was my least favorite part of the meal. Simply put, there was an overwhelming amount of garlic.

After this smorgasbord of food, my guest and I were persuaded by our server to try one of the gluten-free deserts. We opted for Eve’s Organic Apple Cobbler; a delightful blend of organic Fuji apples and cinnamon combined with crumbly, oatmeal, butter based crust made with gluten-free oats. It was a perfect way to end the meal, and was served with two scoops of organic coconut vanilla ice cream, topped with agave syrup.

In addition to Tucson, and its original location in Sedona, Picazzo’s can be found in four other cities throughout Arizona including, Flagstaff, Paradise Valley, Scottsdale, and Tempe. Founder and owner, Rick Freedman, started the small chain back in 2002. Since then, the restaurant has changed its name (was formerly known as Pizza Picazzo), expanded, and undergone significant menu changes.

Picazzo’s, located in Northwest Tucson off Oracle Rd, is situated on the end of a busy complex, making it slightly difficult to get to. Weaving through traffic and circling around the Panda Express that stands just in front of Picazzo’s will lead you to its entrance.

While I have to admit I have no dietary restrictions, I generally like to maintain a healthy lifestyle by eating nutritious foods. That said, I’m not usually turned on to “organic,” “gluten-free,” or “vegetarian” options when I’m dining out, because, in past experiences these types of foods have been noticeably unusual, expensive, and sometimes, downright unpalatable. This was not the case with Picazzo’s; it has unexpectedly become one of my favorite local spots.

Picazzo’s Organic Italian Kitchen

7850 N. Oracle Road, 544-7970

Rating: ***

Recommended Dishes: Caprese, Berry-licious Salad, Sweet & Sassy Pizza

Price Range: Appetizers, $6 to $10.50; Salad and Veggie Plates, $6.95 to $10.95; Organic Pasta & Ravioli, $10.50 to $13, Pizza, $12 to $25.50

Reservations: Only necessary with large parties

What the stars mean: Ratings range from zero to four stars and reflect the reviewer’s response to the food, ambience, and service. Prices are taken into consideration.

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