In 2014, Carolyn O’Connor, the owner and chef at Ceres, came to Tucson for love. She found it, but not in the way she expected — at least at first. “We broke up,” the native of upstate New York says, “but I just loved Tucson and loved the desert, so I stayed.”
Nevertheless, O’Connor later returned to the Empire State to start a cafe in Syracuse. She also was making pasta — a skill she’d learned from a friend in Tucson and honed with one of her uncles, who hails from Parma in northern Italy. On a visit back to Tucson, O’Connor rekindled her relationship with her now-husband and realized the Old Pueblo was where she was meant to be.
After she moved back, O’Connor began looking for a place to open a pasta shop. Her mother-in-law, who owns the LaCo restaurant in downtown Tucson’s Presidio district, encouraged her to look at a space she owned across the street. It was there that Ceres, named for a Roman goddess of agriculture, was born in October 2019.
The restaurant’s menu is small, and that’s by design. “I love a simple menu,” O’Connor says. “I get really overwhelmed when I go to a place and it has a ton of choices.” If customers don’t go for the rotating special, they first choose their pasta, and for first-timers, O’Connor usually recommends one of the two egg noodles: tagliolini, a thinner noodle, or tagliatelle, which is wider. There’s also a vegan organic bucatini, along with another vegan pasta that rotates regularly.
Then comes the sauce choice: tomato basil with San Marzano tomatoes, cacio e pepe (pecorino Romano and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheeses, plus black pepper and butter), pesto made with fresh basil and roasted pine nuts, or Bolognese.
The latter starts with carrots, celery and onions, then adds pancetta (a cured pork), ground beef, onions, red wine and stock before being slow-cooked all day.
The pesto and Bolognese figure in Ceres’ sandwich offerings, too, and the restaurant’s baker, who works out of LaCo, makes the focaccia for the sandwiches. There also are pasta bundles and sauces for diners to prepare at home, and the restaurant, which is open from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays, offers espresso, soft-serve gelato and an ever-changing selection of baked goods.
Ceres was a takeout business even before COVID-19, but now, customers order at the window under the restaurant’s striped awning on Washington Street. The revised concept is working, and O’Connor’s small staff serves a bustling mix of regular customers and those just discovering this hidden gem. The key to that success, O’Connor says, goes back to what brought her to Tucson in the first place. “It’s so cheesy, but I think you can feel the love that’s put into it,” she says. “It just makes you feel really good and cared for.”
77 W. Washington Street