By Valerie Vinyard –
The first thing you notice about Pina Colosimo is her smile.
It’s a wide, gleaming thing of beauty that she shares freely with her customers at Trattoria Pina, the Southern Italian restaurant she owns with her husband, Fedele, in the Catalina Foothills. They started the business in 1993.
Born in Montreal, Pina Colosimo graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree in political science, but couldn’t shake her desire to open a restaurant. When her parents heard she wanted to open her own place, they “were reluctant, but helped,” she said.
“We just kind of jumped in head first,” Colosimo said. “You have to be humble, be gracious.”
The eatery first opened as Trattoria Mi Piace, but after a couple of years, a California restaurant with the same name heard about the Tucson restaurant and wanted royalties. So, the restaurant became Trattoria Pina and now employs about 25 people.
Trattoria Pina features a “modern meets old” aesthetic of calming colors, white tablecloths and simple décor. With its giant glass windows with views of the Santa Catalina Mountains and seating for 135 inside, 32 in a private party room and 70 outside on the patio, many patrons don’t know that the building used to house a bank.
And a lot of those diners have been around for some time. “I have customers that have been with me the entire time,” Colosimo said.
The regulars are easy to spot. During a recent visit, most diners on their way out stopped for a hug or kiss with the owner.
One regular customer is Father Jay Jensen. Every Monday – his day off from St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church – the priest is at Trattoria Pina. “At 5 p.m., I’m walking through the doors,” he said.
“To me, that’s the best Italian restaurant in town. It’s not a huge menu, It is so good and so consistent and so authentic.”
Jensen started dining at the restaurant three or four years ago during a gathering of priests in the restaurant’s private room.
“It’s become a nice tradition,” he said. ‘We just developed a really close friendship. I’m a part of their family.”
Another longtime customer is Dave Smith, director of sales operations for a division of Staples.
“It’s always been the place that we go when we want to do something that’s family,” he said. “It’s special.” Though Smith now lives in Denver, he visits Tucson to see his mom every five to six weeks.
“It’s one of the first places we go,” he said. “When we walk in, Pina has our table.”
Actor Tom Selleck is Colosimo’s favorite celebrity visitor, and she remembers former Beatle Ringo Starr occasionally coming in with his mom.
Restaurants run in Colosimo’s family. Her parents, Cosmo and Anna, owned DaVinci’s on Fort Lowell Road from 1972 to 2000. That’s where she got her start – answering phones, clearing tables and serving customers with her younger sister, Loretta.
Noting that her father trained in Rome and Florence before opening DaVinci’s, Colosimo said of her parents: “They gave me big shoes to fill.” Her recipes are from Southern Italy, so they include a lot of white sauces. “I like the big, hearty meals,” she said.
Her parents help create all of the restaurant’s mouthwatering desserts. On a recent visit, about 10 cakes, including red velvet and tiramisu, filled the glass cases that are visible when you walk inside. The restaurant’s desserts are so popular that Colosimo keeps a list of people to call when she has certain desserts available, including her limoncello cake.
Years ago, her father created the Pope’s Pillow in honor of Pope John Paul II’s 1987 visit to Arizona. It consists of two fluffy, flaky puff pastries that sandwich a mountain of strawberries, custard and whipped cream.
Other popular dishes at Trattoria Pina include the polenta and house-made gnocchi, which is her dad’s recipe. “I hope they can taste the love we’re cooking back there,” she said.
Colosimo imports the olive oil and pastas from Italy. There are no fried foods and no blender drinks, mainly to maintain a quieter atmosphere in the restaurant. Though the restaurant does a brisk business, it manages to avoid the noise of other open-space restaurants.
The menu used to change every six months, but after customers’ feedback, the menu now remains consistent. Daily specials can include seared swordfish, lamb chops or octopus.
She’s thankful that all those years ago, what started as “controlled chaos” has worked out so well. “I still sit here and can’t believe I’m still here,” she said.
Trattoria Pina is open for lunch and dinner on weekdays and only for dinner on Saturdays. The restaurant is closed on Sundays.