Review by Scott Cherry Photos by Tom Gilbert

Robert Merrifield had his eye on acquiring Tucci’s for the past seven years.

“I started trying to buy it in 2012,” said the longtime Polo Grill owner. “I sensed Doris might be getting ready to retire, but there were some lease issues. I tried again and something else went wrong. This year, she said she was ready to let it go after 24 years, and it worked out this time.”

The negotiations over the years were friendly. Tucci’s founder Doris Matthews is Merrifield’s aunt on his mother’s side. She and her late husband, Dean Matthews, helped Merrifield land a management spot at Southern Hills Country Club in the late 1970s. Dean was general manager of the club from 1978 to 1985.

Following her husband’s death, Doris and sons Marc and Zack opened Tucci’s on Cherry Street in a location formerly occupied by Cherry Street Bakery. It started as a pizza-by-the-slice café but soon expanded to include a full Italian menu.

“When it opened, it served only pizza and used only two cheeses, so the name, Tucci’s,” Merrifield said. “Clever, huh?”

Merrifield and wife Donna have owned Tucci’s for some three months. Merrifield, Omar Galvan (director of operations) and Meghan Johanning (executive chef) have tweaked the menu a bit.

“We kept favorites and have added specials, which is how we will introduce new dishes,” Merrifield said.

I have a granddaughter, Grace, who would quibble about that. Her favorite dish, Gorgonzola ravioli, is gone.

Rather than vowing never to return, as some would, she showed her good nature recently by choosing Tucci’s for a birthday dinner. She zeroed in on a special that night — steak Gorgonzola ($17).

It might not quite have rivaled her ravioli, but she said it was very good. We got a taste, too, and she was correct. Tender pieces of steak, mushrooms and caramelized onions were mixed with penne pasta in a yummy Gorgonzola cream sauce, which made it special.

A regular menu item — veal and spinach cannelloni ($19) — was another wise selection. It was prepared with house marinara sauce and alfredo sauce and presented to represent the colors of the Italian flag — red, white and green.

A few at our table wanted a pizza, and two decided to order a sharable bocca di pepe ($24). The thick-crusted pizza was delicious, topped with generous amounts of pepperoni, Italian sausage, mozzarella and fresh jalapenos.

Another person took advantage of a new offer — personal 8-inch pizzas or calzones for $10 — and also went with the bocca di pepe pizza.

So now there is something to consider, depending on one’s situation. Two diners could order the same personal pizza for slightly less than a pizza for two. Or better, order two different personal pizzas and share.

“We also have gluten-free crust, which has 40% fewer calories than our regular crust,” Donna Merrifield said.

Roasted garlic cheese bread ($6) was a tasty opener for us, and the signature Lemonata salad, with its lemony dressing, still is a winner. It can show up as a complimentary side salad or ordered as an entrée salad with sundried tomatoes and artichoke hearts for $8.50.

The lunch menu includes a variety of flatbreads, sandwiches and salads, ranging from $8.50 to $13.

Tucci’s has an impressive list of mostly Italian wines, including new red and white house wines. The labels on the house wines were not revealed, but both were nice, approachable wines.

In addition to the previous staffers mentioned, Lisa Alexander is head bartender. She is a former military member and worked on jets on aircraft carriers, based in Panama City, Florida. She has some stories to tell.

The decorations haven’t changed and are unlikely to, at least for some time. Walls in the cozy dining room that is perfect for date nights are filled with photos of Italian singers and actors going back to the 1940s.

A stunning black-and-white photo of Doris Matthews when she was 19 years old and working in New York City still hangs over the front counter.

The monkey figure they call Monkey Man, who has watched over the bar (originally constructed by Zack Matthews) for many years, is going nowhere, according to Merrifield.

“This is a special place for so many people,” Merrifield said. “We want to keep it that way.”

Twitter:

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Scott Cherry

918-581-8463

scott.cherry

@tulsaworld.com

Scene Writer

Scott is in his second tour of duty with the Tulsa World. He was a sports writer during his first stop. Since returning to the World in 1992, he has been the food writer and now restaurant critic and wine columnist. Phone: 918-581-8463