Italian Food in the Desert

Once Google safely delivered us to Holbrook Arizona and we checked into our motel, our thoughts turned towards dinner.  The town itself isn’t that big, about 5,000 people, a few streets, the interstate and a number of motels, gas stations, and restaurants. 

 Heather and I don’t like to eat fast food, so we turned to the iPhone and Google maps.  What we settled on was “Mesa Italiana Restaurant” – described as “Unpretentious eatery serving Italian specialties in simple surrounds.”  Simple, unpretentious, good food, slow, and I think still using the tables and chairs bought in the 1980’s.  Likely that was when the restaurant added Italian food.  Looking at the large neon sign out front, I am guessing that the place was built-in the 50’s at the height of Route 66. 

 While I didn’t look this up, I am sure that the street this is on was the old Route 66 and now is marked as Business 40.  Looking at the map you can see Interstate 40 making a bend around the city while Business 40 is a straight shot through the main part of town.  Buildings here are either very new, like the Best Western Motel we stayed at, or are rundown and shabby.  There are a number of empty lots and a few abandoned buildings.

This was part of the price paid by small towns for the interstate.  Cars and people who use to meander through the towns at 45 miles per hour and stop for gas, food, and a bed for the night, now they speed past at 80 miles per hour and rarely stop.  Businesses adapted to the new reality of life at interstate speed.  Not all survived and many people lost their jobs.

I found the name Mesa Italiana to be a bit amusing.  In South Western English, “mesa” refers to a kind of flat top mountain which is common in the region.  The word comes from the Spanish “mesa” meaning table.  The Spanish explorers who first came to the area referred to the flat mountains as, “la mesa,” or table.  Americans arriving in the 1800s just called them mesas and you’ll see the name used often.

It is worth noting that “Table Mountain” isn’t used as that refers to a mountain in Cape Town, South Africa or a casino just outside Fresno, California.

Back at Mesa Italiana, the meal eventual arrived and was delicious. Even the house wine was good.  Before someone asks, it was a red wine, likely a Merlot (I always order Merlot), don’t remember the winery.  I did ask, just don’t remember.  Of the three glasses of wine I’ve had this year, this was the best, but not good enough to drive back to Holbrook this weekend for another.

I paid in cash.  Normally I wouldn’t mention this, but there was a sign posted in front that asked people to please pay cash as the credit card fees were something of a problem and they didn’t want to raise their prices.  Guess when you’re feeding travelers and your competition is Burger King you have to keep your profit margin slim.

In the morning we were of on the day’s adventure – the Petrified Forest and the Painted Desert.  I first saw both as a boy, perhaps eight or nine years-old.  Back then, mother wouldn’t have stopped at anything fancy like a restaurant or a motel.  We camped in a tent – a very old tent.  Mother wasn’t sure how old it was, but she would often claim that it was a WWI army surplus tent.  That’s World War One.  The family legend is that Grand Father bought it in the 1920’s for hunting trips.  A fair amount of our equipment was army surplus, although the army blankets were fairly new WWII surplus.

Heather and I headed out-of-town and just before entering the Petrified forest there are a couple of gift shops and naturally we turned in.  The store sold all kinds of things with most of it being either petrified wood, things made from petrified wood, or t-shirts about petrified wood.  They had a theme going there.  We did buy a couple of things before heading into the “forest.”

It was an overcast windy day and we walked around a couple of the trails.  The area gets it’s name from the fossilized trees on the ground.  A few million years ago the area was a swamp and when the trees fell, the high mineral content in the water, replaced the wood with minerals effectively turning wood to stone.  You can still make out the growth rings and see where whole trees fell. 

A “log”

This National Park is basically just a road with a number of interesting stops and trails – perfect for a day sightseeing trip.  We started at the forest end and drove up to the Painted Desert area.  This is an area of cliffs worn down by wind and rain where each layer is a different color – looking like someone had painted them on the horizon. 

By afternoon the wind was hard and it looked liked it could rain any minute.  We decided to go back for more Italian food.  The winds were howling and the sky very black by the time we got to the restaurant.  A note on the door asked that, “Due to high winds, please enter through the lounge.”  Guess the folks at the bar could handle the wind better than the folks eating the lasagna.

Back at the motel, we got on the internet to check weather reports, read email, check Facebook, and look for interesting places to stop the next day on our way up to Taos, New Mexico.

We didn’t get much past the weather report – snow between Santa Fe and Taos.  Snow –  likely one of the scariest words you can say to me are, “There’s snow on the road.”  I hate driving in snow and considering that this Californian boy has only driven in it maybe four times, the thought of a long drive through snow was horrifying.

So, we started in with the alternate planning.  First, I was able to cancel our hotel in Taos, then we found a place in Albuquerque. Again Google helped us find our way through the world and I went to bed wondering if it snows in Albuquerque.

More next week,


About Andrew Reynolds

Born in California Did the school thing studying electronics, computers, release engineering and literary criticism. I worked in the high tech world doing software release engineering and am now retired. Then I got prostate cancer. Now I am a blogger and work in my wood shop doing scroll saw work and marquetry.
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37 Responses to Italian Food in the Desert

  1. Debra says:

    I have high hopes of exploring these areas again, the last time being when I, too, was a child. I have a piece of I’ll-gotten petrified wood from the era when a friend’s well-meaning but obviously misinformed grandparent brought us treasures from their travels. I thought if we return I’d return the petrified wood to the scene of the crime. 60 Minutes reported this is a common thing today–people bringing back “the goods” to alleviate guilt! Your trip sounds wonderful to me!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s fun and nostalgic for me to see your pictures. I made these visits on camping trips with my family as a kid. Don’t think our tent was WWI era, but I think that’s super cool that your mom’s was. I’ll have to do these trips with my kids some day. Did the Italian restaurant people recognize you the next night and welcome you back with friendly, open arms, or did they not notice you were repeat customers?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. thebankinfo says:

    Awesome post!..


  4. Aidan Vancil says:

    Hey Andrew, Just wanted to tell you Hey and See you soon… Today I finished my algebra 1 EOC Hopefully expecting the usual 5 (best grade)


  5. I had no idea there was good Italian food in Holbrook. Whenever we go there (my husband has relatives in the area), they take us to El Rancho. It’s not the best Mexican food I’ve had, but pretty decent.
    As for their name of Mesa, I never thought to question why there is a suburb in Phoenix named Mesa, when we’re in a valley? But now you have me questioning it. Thanks a lot Andrew. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • We looked at the reviews for El Rancho, but the Italian was rated better and closer to our hotel (we were on the north side of I-40 while El Rancho is south in the main residential area).

      Yeah, funny about Mesa, AZ. Places go through so many name changes. The wikipedia article on Mesa is interesting in that it states that over time Mesa’s been known as, Hohokam, Jonesville, Fort Utah, Lehi, and finally Mesa after a group, the First Mesa Company who settled on a nearby Mesa. This name stuck when in 1878 the town of Mesa was registered.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. dorannrule says:

    Thanks for the tour and the Desert Mesa Italian Meal sounds good enough to make me hungry!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Allan G. Smorra says:

    I like your observations that parallel the story, Andrew. If you are going to be a post-retirement tour guide be sure to hook up with one of those big ol’ air-conditioned Mega Bus lines. Might as well go in style…

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Your post and the description of that little town in Arizona reminded me of the animated movie, Cars. 😉 Have you ever seen it? If not:

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Dave Foyle says:

    This brings back memories of traveling Route 66 in 1960 as a boy. We have old 8mm color (!) film (which I’ve since transferred to DVD to preserve for posterity) of a wind/sand storm that hit the area and we had to stop. I remember seeing these weird black bunny rabbit signs (about 2-3 feet tall), all along the road for miles. Did a quick Google and found this link — it’s in Joseph City, just up the road from Holbrook:
    I guess it was the equivalent of Wall Drug up in the Dakotas.

    I’ve always been curious about staying in the “Wigwam Hotel”…the one with the cement teepees. It actually gets good reviews:

    Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • We didn’t stop at Jack Rabbit, I remember stopping there and Mother not letting my buy anything. However, I have been to Wall Drug and recall getting a candy bar there. The Wigwam Hotel is a Route 66 icon. It’s on the other side of I-40 from where we stayed. At the time the wind was building, I was wondering if it would turn into a sandstorm or a rainstorm. Both can be impressive sights to witness in the desert.


  10. lorieb says:

    speaking of snow, it is snowing here today! Snow in May is rare even here, very annoying!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. You might want to lead a tour group. I think there are several of us readers who would join you on exploring these areas. That restaurant sounds delightful.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. If you make it to Taos sometime go to the reservation. We took the High Road from Santa Fe and then the Low road back. The old Missions on the roads were so awe inspiring.Such a spiritual place or at least for me. Walking around Old Taos was so much fun….

    Liked by 1 person

  13. GP Cox says:

    Going to the desert and enjoying Italian food, that’s a new one Andrew! One day I will have to get out to see the painted desert, every photo I see is so grand!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. jfwknifton says:

    In Lincolnshire once, I followed the snow plough and I didn’t like even that. Ice though is much worse because it is invisible. You can skid completely uncontrollably at even 30mph and it’s fast enough to write off your car if you hit anything.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s one of the things I was afraid of. Out here we call it “black ice” because it’s the same color as the road. I was also concerned that we’d planned to drive nearly 400 miles that day and with snow, that would have been a very long day as we’d have had to drive slowly through the snow areas.


  15. PiedType says:

    Sometimes I wonder how we ever got from Point A to Point B without smartphones and GPS.

    Liked by 1 person

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