By Heather Hoch
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By Heather Hoch and Lauren Saria
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Between chef-driven spots Beckett's Table from Justin Beckett and Cullen Campbell's Crudo in Arcadia's Gaslight Square, and blocks away from establishments of Valley tastemakers Vincent Guerithault and Mark Tarbell (not to mention the new headquarters of Fox Restaurant Concepts), Nook is an improbably low-profile restaurant.
As the name suggests, it's a small space — a pair of sky-blue doors opening to a long, narrow room with a wall of oversize booths on one side, an extended bar on the other, and rows of low lights hanging over each. The brightest thing in the place is the brilliant red pizza oven near the front. And during dinner, when the place is usually packed, it's hard to discern whether the ease you feel comes from the oven's glowing fire, the din of conversation around you, or the glass of wine in your hand.
Nook is the new restaurant from Frank Vairo and Tagan Dering, former owners of Amaro Pizzeria & Vino Lounge in North Scottsdale. Chef Nick LaRosa, who used to cook with Gio Osso (who now runs Virtù in Scottsdale) and opened many of the new restaurants at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport's Terminal 4, heads up Nook's tidy menu of mostly light-Italian fare. Oftentimes he is at the pizza oven, muscling a hunk of dough until it stretches and shapes to his will, sometimes pausing to say "nice to see you again" to the regulars before launching the floppy disc high into the air, where, spinning wildly, it nearly reaches the ceiling.
3623 E. Indian School Road
Phoenix, AZ 85018
Region: East Phoenix
In many respects, Nook is a trattoria speakeasy, which is to say it's a nice spot for a glass of wine and (mostly) satisfying Italian eats but still inconspicuous enough to stay off the restaurant radar of East Phoenix's who's who. And if that's the kind of place you're looking for, welcome to the neighborhood.
You could start with the arancini, six golf-ball-size orbs of fried risotto filled with gooey mozzarella cheese that can be swirled into streaks of garlic-tinged pomodoro and balsamic sauces. Of the bruschettas, the servers here seem to like the beer-braised pork creation more than I do. Recommended on all my visits, the four slices of not-so-crunchy bread come topped with a sugary barbecue sauce and an equally sweet dollop of fleshy pink coleslaw that overpowers what little flavor there is to be had in the meat.
Salads are an acceptable, though not crucial, part of the experience here. There is a halibut salad that, save for a few nice blueberries, is fairly ordinary and not worth its $14 asking price. The chicken chop, thanks to more interesting flavors from ingredients like roasted corn, nutty hemp hearts, and focaccia croutons interspersed with mini-cubes of tender chicken in a light Gorgonzola dressing, fares a bit better.
But you have probably come here for the pizzas, and Nook's Neapolitan-style pies, while not reaching the gourmet greatness of the Valley's best, are a solid bet. Their success comes as a result of doing the traditional well enough so that it's easy to enjoy them more as thoughtful meals than just things to plow through while watching the game showing on the TVs above the bar. There are eight 12-inch varieties, each featuring a well-salted crust that's charred and crisp at the rim, thin and soft everywhere else.
The Porco e Funghi is the best of the lot, with bright tomato sauce, sausage, mushrooms, Parmesan, and basil lit up with a near-perfect house-pulled mozzarella you can taste in every bite. The same mozzarella is also featured on the Calabrese, where it meets up with Parmesan and taleggio, the meaty, yeasty, and tangy cow's cheese, as well as caramelized onions, sweet sausage, and spicy and fruity Calabrian chiles for a magnificent collision of flavors that, of all the pizzas, is the most inventive.
And although Nook's Quattro Stagioni, a pizza divided into four sections, might appear to be the solution to topping indecision among friends, it's an idea that probably plays out better in theory than in practice. Inevitably, the slices of roasted tomato and spinach will probably go first, the mushroom slices second, and the less interesting slices — those laden with handfuls of black olives or artichokes — left for the slowest (or most polite) at the table.
There are a few other familiar entrées as well, but after a few bites, and given their $20 and up prices, it's hard not to think you should have just ordered a pizza and splurged on a better bottle of wine — or wish that Nook's more interesting and well-flavored lunch-only dishes (like a steamed white cheddar cheeseburger on a lavash roll or fresh and spicy halibut tacos wrapped in lettuce and with a side of cumin-tinged black beans) would be available during dinner.
The pasta crepe isn't very good, its grilled chicken, topped with a peppery cream sauce and moments away from being too dry, sits atop a browned foundation of fused pasta that's more filling than flavorful. A fatty rib-eye, slathered in a cloying pear sauce, comes with more Gorgonzola-blasted risotto than you'll know what to do with.
But then there are the desserts, which come courtesy of Tracy Dempsey, who has created signature sweet endings for places like Scottsdale's Citizen Public House, Tempe's House of Tricks, and Crudo, Nook's neighbor just a few doors away.
There is the imaginative Chocolate Salami, a kind of charcuterie board of revolving treats that might include a dollop of homemade crème fraîche, fruity biscotti, sweet "tapenade," and slices of decadent chocolate "salami" with bits of coconut. And Dempsey's version of Italy's affogato — which consists of a shot of espresso poured over a molten chocolate cake, lemon ice cream, an amaretti cookie, and heavenly chocolate crumbles you'd be happy to eat on just about anything — is just about as good as it gets.
If Nook's cozy space makes it easy to settle into, the service here makes it even more so. Easygoing and almost impossibly efficient, everyone, from the hostess to the servers to even the top brass, works together as a kind of well-oiled friendly machine. Was that one of the owners who just cleared the dirty dishes from the table while inquiring about your meal? It was.
Along with the pizzas and Tracy Dempsey's desserts, it's one of the best things about the place.
Three words: Tito's on TAP. Great happy hour specials, and I don't feel judged for coming straight from the gym to catch them either. Bruschetta options are all yum. Thanks now I'm hungry :)