The new owners of Enoteca Pizzeria Wine Bar posted this goal on their Web site: to improve the image of downtown Tucson and make an impact on the local restaurant scene.

Mission accomplished.

René Knechtle, Christian Encinas and Jose Valenzuela bought the Italian restaurant last November from owner Shannon Reilly, who had owned it for about two years.

After a two-week renovation that included a total repainting and a dramatic menu change, the trio opened for business on Nov. 30.

And boy, is it even better.

When Enoteca first opened six years ago, it emanated a cafeteria-like vibe during lunch, when diners stood in line, ordered at the counter and seated themselves.

Now, the restaurant has matured, adding a more sedate table service at lunch with actual servers.

Granted, the service should be a little faster for the working crowd, but we prefer the non-cattle-call vibe.

The grown-up atmosphere extends to the food. All of the dishes we sampled on two visits were well-balanced with nice flavors.

On our first dinner visit, we ordered the mushroom medley appetizer ($8) with melted house-made mozzarella. A bounty of button and cremini mushrooms greeted us in a white wine sauce with tastes of garlic, shallots and butter. We slathered the mushrooms and mozzarella cheese on top of crispy crostinis for a perfect vegetarian appetizer.

The drunken shrimp ($9) were three large shrimp tossed with diced Canadian bacon, shallots, garlic, cherry tomatoes and Madeira wine sauce. The shrimp were served over a creamy polenta with a lovely consistency that came from constant stirring. The appetizer is finished with butter.

We knew we hit the jackpot after the first bite of linguini frutta di mare ($18). The al dente linguine possessed the perfect consistency, as did the half-dozen fresh clams and three large shrimp. Sweet cherry tomatoes, fresh spinach and thyme were tossed with white wine, butter and garlic. We wish a few extra red chile flakes had been added for a kick.

The house-made gnocchi ($15) weren't the traditional small, round dumplings. These were four larger, log-like gnocchi created with potatoes, house-made ricotta, eggs, flour and thyme. A mix of candied pancetta, toasted walnuts, diced zucchini and sage butter sauce completed the dish. The flavors and textures combined to make a hearty pasta dish with complementing nutty and savory tastes.

On our second visit, we split a colorful Enoteca salad ($6). Mixed greens topped with julienned pears, candied pecans, gorgonzola crumbles and dried cranberries were tossed with a simple strawberry-raspberry vinaigrette and surrounded by slices of orange.

The open-face rosemary chicken sandwich ($8) was a knife-and-fork sandwich. Chicken chunks sat on top of a thick slice of housemade focaccia spread with a subtle roasted garlic aioli.

The tender chicken pieces were cooked with garlic, shallots, white wine and butter. Mushrooms, tomatoes and the chicken nestled under a layer of Swiss and Parmesan cheeses, resulting in a juicy sandwich that oozed flavor with every bite.

The 7-inch quattro formaggi ($8) pizza contained a blend of gorgonzola, mozzarella, parmesan and a slightly bitter taleggio that balanced perfectly.

The cheese blend on the six slices was topped with dried oregano and tomato.

For dessert, we were fans of the cast-iron cookie ($6). A house-made layer of chocolate chip cookie on the cusp between cookie and dough was presented in a smoldering iron skillet. The vanilla Haagen-Dazs ice cream provided a cool respite from the hot cookie. A simple chocolate sauce and fresh berries topped the dessert.

Enoteca has started a promotion on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, when any of the 10-inch pizzas and a beer cost $12.

The restaurant offers a full bar, four beers on tap and seven in the bottle or can. Drafts include Leffe, Amber Bock and Red Hook, and bottles include 90 Shilling, Shock Top and Stella Artois.

Also on those Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, glasses and bottles of wine are half-price.

If Enoteca is going to use the term "Wine Bar," however, the owners should up the ante. The few dozen bottles available ($18 to $52) are an excellent start, but we'd love to see more variety and high-end wines.

We love Enoteca, but the wine could transform it from a friendly restaurant with quality food to the hip spot to go - whether you're eating or drinking.


Enoteca Pizzeria Wine Bar

• Where: 58 W. Congress St.

• Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays; 5-10 p.m. Saturdays.

• Family call: Lots of choices for kids.

• Noise level: Moderate.

• Vegetarian choices: Several.

• Reservations: Accepted for dinner and parties of 12 or more for lunch. 623-0744.

• Price range: Entrees range from $6 to $10 for lunch; $9 to $20 for dinner.