Tucson natives Mat Cable and Devon Sanner had flirted for a couple of years with the idea of a culinary collaboration, and as luck would have it, the timing and circumstances that had never seemed right before came together last fall — at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In April, the two longtime friends will open Zio Peppe on East Tanque Verde Road, an Italian-American restaurant that will borrow from Cable’s Fresco Pizzeria & Pastaria and Sanner’s 15 years working in Janos Wilder’s kitchens.
But lest you think this is a redux of Fresco, consider the pair’s plan to incorporate what they call Tucson terroir into the menu. House pastas, pizza and bread will be made with indigenous mesquite flour and heritage and regional grains including white Sonoran wheat, Pima club wheat, and red fife wheat. Sausages and other charcuterie will be made in-house.
The idea is to add “quintessentially Tucson” takes on Italian fare, from the loaded elote arancini with cilantro and lime aioli to the creamy masa polenta with smoked cheddar and green chiles or the Lasagne Sonorense with house made chorizo, chile colorado, queso fresco and queso Oaxaca.
The classic margherita pizza is dressed with San Marzano tomatoes, fresh basil and mozzarella, and a calzone is filled with house-made fennel sausage, mozzarella and ricotta, and tagliatelle bolognese. Pastas will be served in focaccia bowls baked in house.
“We’ve got some really unique flavors we want to try to include some history as well as where we are now” in Tucson culinary evolution, Cable said. “Pizzerias for the most part are kind of all the same. We are trying to make something different and unique. Our aim is to try and make a multitude of those dishes that are really fun and appealing and make you want to go there.”
Sanner said that in addition to tapping into the Native American and Mexican food cultures that have long defined Tucson, Zio Peppe will incorporate the flavors brought by later immigrants including Chinese and Italian.
“All those feed into this concept of Tucson terroir, the layering of the flavors of the region, what’s brought here and what’s found here,” he said.
Zio Peppe will take over the space at 6502 E. Tanque Verde Road that was most recently home to Fire N’ Smoke, CowPony owner Jay Healy’s inventive barbecue and pizza restaurant. The pandemic prompted the restaurant’s closing last summer after three years.
Cable said he had been in talks with Healy since late last summer about bringing a new concept to the 2,300-square-foot space. He and Sanner had been spitballing collaboration ideas including developing ghost kitchens — creating menus and concepts that would be executed by other restaurants in addition to their own menus — but had not settled on an idea.
“This opportunity came up and we just had to see this” through, Sanner said.
“Devon and I had some pretty grand plans for collaboration before the pandemic hit that were squashed,” Cable added.
Renovation work, including a deep clean of the kitchen, a new facade and a new patio and dining room, is almost finished. The restaurant’s centerpiece is a unique wood-fired oven with a rotating stone hearth that Cable said was a big selling point for him and Sanner.
“That oven was a big part of why we did it. It’s a very well-built, efficient oven,” he said. “As far as wood-fired ovens, it’s about as efficient as it gets and that’s appealing because we definitely want to be able to make some pizzas in the place.”