Editor’s Note: We are excited to welcome Kate Selby back to the eBA blog as the new writer behind our Baja Eats column. In keeping with her passion for local sourcing and telling the stories behind the food we eat, Kate’s new take on Baja Eats features a behind-the-scenes approach to previewing restaurants, talking to the chefs and restauranteurs who create the menus featured and learning what goes into making their food delicious.
Dinner in Zona 78’s dining room is filled with people of all ages taking their ease. Conversations are not so loud as to be intrusive, but they’re not too quiet either. Zona 78 has become a destination spot for upscale family dining thanks in part to the small balls of egg-free pizza dough offered free of charge; the resulting dough creations can be baked while kids eat. Chef Keith Parker credits this innovation with why Zona 78 is one of the top places in town to take children out to dinner: “If kids want to go to Zona and play with some dough, that’s where the parents are taking them.”
Zona 78’s menu focuses on familiar favorites crafted with high-quality ingredients, many from local purveyors: house-cured meats on their antipasti appetizer, handmade pizzas with house-made cheeses, bread from local bakeries, and entrees large enough to feed two. A personal favorite is the grilled cheese sandwich special ($14 for a full order, $10.50 for half) from the lunch menu: the sandwich’s ingredients change daily, and each incarnation pairs perfectly with Zona 78’s cry-worthy tomato basil soup.
Dinner kicked off with the Local Tomato and Mozzarella Bruschetta appetizer ($9.50), made with tomatoes from Sleeping Frog Farms in Benson. A night out after a long day called for drinks: we split the Smoke and Spice cocktail ($9), a lightly sweet whiskey cocktail featuring High West Rye Whiskey, Smoked Whiskey del Bac, Serrano Pepper, and Smoked Ice that lived up to its name for heat. Looking to stretch your dining dollars? On Tuesdays, all wine bottles are half off.
For dinner, pasta won out over pizza, and our plates arrived hot and fragrant. The crust on the Chicken Parmigiano ($17.50) was a gorgeous golden brown, topped with gooey melted mozzarella and a vibrant marinara sauce served over penne pasta. The chicken breast was tender and juicy, and the penne, tossed in garlic and butter, was flavorful without distracting from the main event.
The Rigatoni Bolognese ($17) featured a generous helping of savory sausage and ground beef-packed sauce ladled over al dente pasta. The crowning glory of the dish, however, is the light and delicious house-made ricotta cheese on top, made with only four ingredients: whole milk, heavy cream, lemon juice, and salt. The secret? Chef Parker says the key is maintaining the correct temperature and not stirring the cheese. While it mixes in beautifully with the pasta, this cheese is good enough to eat straight (and I strongly recommend you set aside a spoonful or two for specifically that reason).
Despite packing up half of our entrees with an eye towards lunch the next day, we still ran out of room before eating dessert. This is a mistake I recommend you avoid; Zona 78’s desserts are a satisfying way to top off a meal, and their Warm Chocolate Brownie ($6), topped with ice cream, fresh berries, crumbles of almond granola, and salted caramel sauce, is particularly good.
If you find yourself at Zona 78 for happy hour, Chef Parker points to two new additions to the menu as “must try”: the Arancini and Pesto, and the Meatball Sliders ($6 during happy hour). The buratta is also back on the menu. For those looking to maximize their locally sourced dining experience, Parker anticipates hosting another all local dinner in the spring, as part of Zona 78’s monthly wine dinner series.
7301 E Tanque Verde Rd
Tucson, AZ 85715