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Cheap eats: Mario’s Pizza

Mike Bonnell (above, left) and Jody Maciulla have lunch at Mario's

Mike Bonnell (above, left) and Jody Maciulla have lunch at Mario's

What: Mario’s Pizza

Address and phone:

Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 4 to 10 p.m. Sundays

What was ordered: Slice and a drink lunch deal ($2.99), Slice with one topping and a drink lunch deal ($3.35), Garlic Cheese Bread ($3.50), Hot Wings ($6.50) for a total of $17.70, well within our Cheap Eats goal of a meal for two for less than $20.

Comments: Back in the late ’50s, a place called Marco’s Pizza opened on East 22nd Street, and a couple of years later, Marco’s No. 2 showed up at 3157 N. First Ave.

Though Marco’s No. 2 had about a 20-year run, by the late ’70s, the quality of the pizza served there was often characterized by a word that’s commonly associated with the characters that came after Marco’s. I’m old enough to have “dined” at No. 2 at least a couple of times, and despite that my adolescent palate was exceedingly forgiving, I concurred with that common characterization.

Marco’s No. 2 changed hands in 1979. Maybe it was a fortunate coincidence, but in what was likely a cost-saving maneuver, the big sign on the building that used to read Marco’s was ever-so-slightly modified, and Mario’s Pizza was born, serving “pizza how it oughta be.”

As then-Citizen food writer Jeff Smith wrote in 1984, it took him and more than a few other people a couple of years to shake the reputation of the former pizzeria and give Mario’s a try, but once he did, he came away with a favorable opinion.

A quarter of a century later, this humble neighborhood haunt is still going strong, serving good if not astounding New York-style pie at prices that would be reasonable even by Marco’s-era standards.

For $2.99, the lunch deal gets you a slice of pizza and a bottomless fountain drink.

While the crust of the pie is classic New York – the thin, floppy variety you fold to eat – there’s a tad more sauce than you’d expect by Big Apple standards. The edges of the crust give away a nice hint of oregano in the dough, and though the slices aren’t the humongous wedges you find at places such as Local Dough and Mama’s, they’re ample for the price.

My companion opted for ham on his slice, which took the meal deal all the way up to $3.35. The ham was meticulously and generously arranged on every bit of available space on the slice.

We could have walked out of there with what may well have been an all-time Cheap Eats record for frugality of $6.85 including tax, but that would have meant passing on the Hot Wings and Garlic Cheese Bread, which still kept us under the $20 ceiling.

The dozen hot wings ($6.50) were respectable if not overly memorable, the chicken was fried to a good crispy exterior, free of the annoying breading that ruins a good hot wing. They were served in a puddle of sauce that was appropriately hot rather than the overly macho variety preferred by those middle-aged compensation dudes who still wear athletic jerseys and/or drive ‘Vettes and/or are stoked to be “getting the band back together.”

The Garlic Cheese Bread ($3.50) came in a little pricey, particularly compared with the pizza slices, as it essentially was a hoagie roll served open-face with melted mozzarella and parmesan. The offering was significantly upgraded by a 4-ounce cup of marinara that was refreshingly authentic, as it had a subtle, tangy verve and lacked the sugar often added to tomato sauce at pizza joints.

Mario’s also serves a respectable fleet of a dozen subs/sandwiches priced from $5 to $6.95 and dinner selections of spaghetti, lasagna, meat, chicken fingers and deep fried shrimp for $5.30 to $8.50.

Signature pizzas include “The Carnivore” (pepperoni, sausage, Canadian bacon, meatball, beef and extra cheese), “The Cowboy” (beef, bacon, cheddar and green chiles), and “The Pounder” (a full pound of cheese on a 14-inch pizza).

By any other name (with the exception of Marco’s No. 2), Mario’s is an endearing little pizza joint that’s easy on the wallet if not overly easy on the eyes.

Service: Order at the counter and your food is brought to your table.

Bar: Bottled beer

Children’s menu: No

Web site: No

Most recent health inspection: An “excellent” rating March 10, 2008. No critical violations were reported. Mario’s has received nine consecutive “excellent” ratings dating to April 5, 2004.

Owner Vince Vollero (right) slices a pizza at Mario's Pizza, which is located just south of East Fort Lowell Road on First Avenue.

Owner Vince Vollero (right) slices a pizza at Mario's Pizza, which is located just south of East Fort Lowell Road on First Avenue.

Citizen Online Archive, 2006-2009

This archive contains all the stories that appeared on the Tucson Citizen's website from mid-2006 to June 1, 2009.

In 2010, a power surge fried a server that contained all of videos linked to dozens of stories in this archive. Also, a server that contained all of the databases for dozens of stories was accidentally erased, so all of those links are broken as well. However, all of the text and photos that accompanied some stories have been preserved.

For all of the stories that were archived by the Tucson Citizen newspaper's library in a digital archive between 1993 and 2009, go to Morgue Part 2

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