If it’s not too painful, think back three years. Around this time in 2008, the nation’s financial system faced collapse, and the local real estate market was going from downturn to freefall with the Mortgages Ltd. debacle becoming a poster child for the burst bubble. In Downtown Tempe, that bankruptcy left the Centerpoint Condominiums standing half finished as a testament to unfulfilled dreams along Mill Avenue. It wasn’t exactly the best time to open a restaurant designed to appeal, in part, to residents of towers that were indefinitely delayed.
|West Sixth, formerly known as the Centerpoint Towers|
La Bocca was such a place, and it would have been easy to expect its failure as the upscale clientele expected to live in Downtown Tempe failed to arrive. Instead, La Bocca has survived over three years with subtle, ongoing changes to its menu but without departing from its basic approach. The vision was, and continues to be, one that combines Italian and Mediterranean touches with a wine bar atmosphere in a walkable urban environment. The location in the Brickyard building situates it just three blocks from the Mill Avenue / Third Street light rail station.
|exterior from Mill Avenue|
La Bocca inserts the word “urban” into its full name (“La Bocca Urban Pizzeria + Wine Bar). Often, that’s a bad sign that means a place isn’t urban at all. La Bocca gets it right, though, by addressing both Mill Avenue and the walkway through the heart of the Brickyard development with an L-shaped patio that wraps around its space. Sit there in mild weather or take in the dark wood furniture inside and the imposing painting reproduction over the bar. Indulge too much in the wine bar aspect of La Bocca, and it’s easy to imagine the subject’s eyes are following you.
The wine choices focus on California with some representation from South American and Spain, but not Italy. The Italian beer Peroni appears among the draft brews, but the domestic selections are the more interesting ones with local favorites from Four Peaks alongside beers like Full Sail Amber Ale from Oregon. Signature drinks include potent red and white sangrias, neither of which succumbs to the excessive sweetness of so many restaurant versions, and a “voodoo lemonade” that adds vodka and muddled blackberries to the familiar summer beverage.
The menu, which is the same for lunch and dinner, focuses on individual pizzas, salads, sandwiches, and appetizers meant for sharing. Simple starters include local Queen Creek olives served warm with toast points and the ubiquitous mix-and-match bruschetta. As at Postino, the serving is four pieces, which can be combined in any way requested. One unanticipated favorite is the Mediterranean plate, which combines crisp flatbread with smoky baba ghanoush, salty olives, roasted bell peppers, and hummus enlivened with an unexpected touch of basil.
|Queen Creek olives|
Sandwiches here are all built on a foundation of crusty, slightly charred ciabbatta. The bread is made on site, but most of the meats are from Boar’s Head in a departure from La Bocca’s frequent emphasis on local ingredients. One turkey sandwich includes provolone and mushrooms, a nice way to add heft and flavor to the sandwich in place of bacon, which seems the preferred add-on to nearly everywhere else. Another turkey sandwich features brie and figs, although not in enough quantity for them to stand out as much as they should.
|turkey and mushroom sandwich with slaw|
The chicken salad sandwich may be the best since it relies on a simple but effective filling of freshly-cooked poultry in sizeable chunks with romaine. All sandwiches come with a choice of cole slaw, green salad, or chips. The first option is usually the best. La Bocca’s slaw is a light, Mediterranean-inspired take on the deli classic; its dressing is closer to a vinaigrette than a more typical thick mayonnaise preparation. The green salad is a straightforward mix of mesclun lettuces, and the chips are just that — chips that you’ve probably had a thousand times before.
|turkey and brie sandwich with chips|
Salads at La Bocca are hearty, entree-sized bowls. The heirloom beet salad is populated with big hunks or ruby beets on top of two huge slices of tomato, arugula, and goat cheese. The figure-eight shape makes it an obvious candidate for splitting between two diners. The dayton caesar comprises as much roasted chicken as romaine, making it better as a entree than a starter. Goat cheese and pears are the principal ingredients in the lightest of the salads, a sweeter option with cranberries and candied walnuts.
|heirloom beet salad|
La Bocca’s pizza, never too shabby, has improved over the last three-and-a-half years. The crust is slightly crisp and charred toward the outer edges with a ring of pillowy softness just beyond and then becomes thinner toward the center. There are half a dozen signature pies such as truffled mushroom, with plenty of fungus matched with spinach and goat cheese, and the garden pizza, with an engaging juxtaposition of mild white cheddar and more pungent blue cheese beneath a cold topping of peppery arugula.
There’s also a make-your-own pie option, and all of the same toppings available for pizza can be used in a custom-made calzone. While the pizzas lend themselves to immediate sharing, the calzones are probably big enough for two as well, especially if preceded with appetizers or salads. They’re served with big steak knives, and cutting them open immediately releases steam redolent of the tomato sauce and chosen fillings mixed in. Mozzarella is the standard cheese with ricotta available as an upgrade.
Just in case there isn’t enough dairy in those cheeses, La Bocca’s dessert menu emphasizes ice cream. The flavors come from local purveyor Crave, making them worth the indulgence. Banana Toffee mixes bits of confection into a creamy, fruity base. Mint chocolate chip is authentic with flecks of green rather than uniform color from food coloring, and anyone who knows a bit of local history would find it difficult to resist a flavor identified as “Mary Coyle Vanilla,” named for the vintage ice cream shop in Central Phoenix.
|mint chocolate chip ice cream|
From bruschetta to ice cream with salad, sandwiches, and pizza in between, La Bocca seems to have steadily grown into the role it defined for itself during the turmoil of 2008. While the economy remains stalled, at least the Centerpoint towers, now renamed “West Sixth,” are nearly complete and filling rapidly with residents. Likewise, La Bocca now has a sister restaurant, Canteen Modern Tequila, across the street. With those developments, it can be said that things are looking up on Mill, both literally and figuratively.
Update October 11, 2012: Crave, the ice cream supplier mentioned in the review below, is no longer in business. La Bocca now obtains its ice cream from Sweet Republic.
699 S. Mill Ave., Tempe AZ 85281