Doris Matthews, owner of the beloved Tucci’s for 25 years, is a bit like the Mona Lisa. Gregarious, a fixture, seemingly there forever … yet enigmatic, shrouded in mystery, with more than a hint of glamour. Some of Tulsa’s older denizens know her as the wife of the manager of Southern Hills Country Club. But where was she before that?
Precisely at 2:00 p.m. a few weeks ago, her phone rings with a call. (Only a pandemic would keep her from appearing for an interview in person. “I’m on the endangered species list!” she quips.)
“I was born in legendary Greenville, Miss.,” she begins. “I had a very unremarkable childhood, almost a blur. At 18, I found myself in Tampa, Fla., working for one of the biggest retailers. Fashion was a big thing in those days; there were trunk shows all the time. We’d all drive over to Palm Beach and end up, somehow, in Miami. Oh, I loved Florida … the ocean, the palm trees, youth, fun, martinis, jazz. All there for such a brief moment, and then it’s gone.”
One evening, while dining in the legendary gaudy gardens of Florida’s Kapok Tree Inn, she met a man named Dean Matthews. He later became her husband.
“I concentrated on home and kids then, but we had fun. Dean would say, ‘We’re going to Paris,’ or ‘We’re going to Greece,’ and we’d go. He knew whom to meet, where to eat – he was insatiable,” she says.
Dean knew how to manage national golf tournaments, the kind that require years of planning, and every top golf club wanted him as manager. That’s how he ended up at Southern Hills. Then came the day in 1991 when, without warning, he was gone. Doris found herself to be a widow.
“I had to do something,” she says. “I couldn’t go on not doing anything. But what? Somehow, my sons and I decided to open a pizza-by-the-slice joint on Cherry Street. I’d eaten in every Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris, but, somehow, that seemed the right thing to do.”
She’d been to the legendary Rao’s in Italian Harlem, and she felt at home in the era of Frank Sinatra; dark and smoky seemed the way to go. The first month Tucci’s was open, a quartet of sinister men in dark suits showed up every night (and Doris never found out who they were). However, the place got a reputation for excitement – with maybe a hint of danger – and all the people she’d known at Southern Hills came pouring in.
“We had people out the door standing on the sidewalk,” Doris recalls. “Always the A-list. It was raucous. People had fun. The place was full, and full of laughter, and the later it got, the louder it got. Somewhere, there’s a video of a guy singing karaoke, except we didn’t have karaoke; it’s a drunk guy using a pepper mill as a microphone, and that about sums it up.”
One of Tucci’s most loyal regulars, a legend in his own right, was Robert Merrifield, owner of the Polo Grill.
“Robert’s mother is my sister,” says Doris. “I’m his aunt, and Tucci’s became his hideaway. He could escape from the stress of running a flagship fine-dining restaurant. He could come here and just be Robert, just have fun. So when, a year or so ago, I decided to sell the restaurant – you have to get out at some point, and I’d been there 25 years – I sold it to him. He is the only person who can take Tucci’s to an even higher level.”
Merrifield, of course, wasn’t there during those crazy late night hours, and his memories of Tucci’s are more sedate.
“So cute, so romantic,” he recalls. “I grew up working in restaurants like that, so it has found a place in my heart.”
Will he change the ambiance, the concept, the decor?
“We made the patio more cozy, put new upholstery in the booths, and that’s about it,” he says. “We’ve had more input on the menu, though.”
Tucci’s, which had always served pizza, started serving pasta when, sometime around 1996, a diner asked for it. Doris happily recalls how she ran to the kitchen and shouted to the chef to throw some sausage, oregano and San Marzano tomatoes in a pan. The menu that evolved over the years was, in Merrifield’s opinion, a bit too heavy on red sauce southern Italian specialties.
“We’ve put fresher dishes on,” he says. “New pastas like bucatini. We even ran a special of vegan ravioli lasagna.”
Merrifield has always liked the idea of salad coming with the meal. In addition to Doris’ famous limonata salad – which she developed years before with months of trial and error – Tucci’s now offers Caesar or soup. But for the most part, Merrifield will leave Doris Matthews’ dream restaurant unchanged.
“Coming into Tucci’s,” he says, “is like putting on a pair of old shoes. It’s comfortable. It’s a perfect fit. It’s home.”