John Martinez spent a decade cooking for one of the world's most famous chefs, but now he's returned to Tucson to open his own restaurant. The gourmet chef quietly opened the doors of Tito and Pep this week in the classic Speedway space that housed Zayna Mediterranean and Feast.
The midtown bistro feels extremely well-put together for somebody's first restaurant, but that's because Martinez has experience opening high-profile concepts around the western hemisphere. After getting his start as a dishwasher in downtown Tucson at the age of 19, Martinez moved to New York to work for renowned chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
He spent nine years at various Jean-Georges restaurants including the resort restaurant Café Martinique in the Bahamas and J&G Steakhouse in the Phoenician hotel in Scottsdale. He moved back to Tucson about five years ago and cooked for La Paloma resort and country club until the Zayna space opened up.
Martinez has spent the past several months designing the restaurant with his wife Nikki Berger Martinez. The walls from Zayna have been pulled down to unify the sunlit space, which has been accented with funky plants and eclectic objects they picked up from estate sales. The main wall is headed by a majestic cholla rib that Martinez found in the desert north of town.
"We want to provide fine dining level of food and service, but in a more relaxed atmosphere that resonates more with the kind of place Tucson is," he said. "I don't wanna say it's Mexican food, but we definitely have that influence ... We're a multicultural city and I want to pull from that, plus my experience outside of Tucson and outside of the US to create something new and vibrant, and a bit lighter for midtown."
Martinez's menu is a contemporary take on bistro dishes, with small shareable plates like kampachi aguachile and charred broccoli with pickled fresno chiles, as well as larger entrees like pollo asado and striped bass with spiced carrots and king oyster mushrooms. (Dishes are in the $14-$25 price range.) Martinez brought in a special grill from a producer outside of Austin, which will produce mesquite-fired meats.
The wine list also feels highly curated, with interesting varietals like Austrian Zweigelt and Spanish Verdejo. Martinez wants Tito and Pep to be a neighborhood spot where people feel comfortable hanging out and sharing a glass of wine.
The name Tito and Pep refers to play names his grandmother and her first cousin used back in the 1920s during babysitting visits. Martinez wanted to honor his grandmother and rich family history in his restaurant.
"My grandmother was the first person I cooked with. Her cooking is what made me love food. And so it really is like a passion project," he said. "When I stopped going to the UA and washing dishes, I really wanted to open my own place in Tucson ... I really want to make a true Tucson restaurant," he said.
Tito and Pep is at 4122 E. Speedway. Phone: 520-207-0116. It's open 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. with the bar open until 11 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday, and 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. with the bar open until midnight Friday and Saturday.