A Little Pizza Heaven
In Italian, grazie means thank you. In Valley of the Sun-speak, it means an exciting new cafe. Grazie Pizzeria and Wine Bar is the latest addition to an ever-impressive collection of interesting new restaurants calling metro Phoenix home. Most people probably haven't heard of it yet. Many people, upon discovering it, will want to call it their own. And beyond being just an enjoyable restaurant, Grazie marks the evolution of a more modern, mature city.
Not too many years ago, the short list of top local restaurants was just that, incredibly short. Finding good gourmet pizza in the Valley was a challenge, with as few as one or two contenders to recommend.
These days, Arizona is the second-fastest growing state for new restaurants in the nation, behind only Utah, which has gotten an artificial boost thanks to the upcoming Olympics. Keeping track of every good place now practically requires traveling with a phone book, a laptop, a street guide and a permanently attached notebook to jot down new discoveries that pop up like mushrooms after a rain.
Today, we've got plenty of stealth operations, with high-quality operations under the direction of folks about whom most of us have never heard. Openings are soft, fueled by word of mouth. Stakes have grown higher for mom-and-pop shops, yet more often than in earlier years, the places are excellent.
Grazie is a great example of the phenomenon. The cute, cozy cafe opened about two months ago with barely a whisper. There isn't much drive-by traffic potential for the converted cottage, just 700 square feet along Main Street's quiet side (west of Goldwater). The menu is brief, consisting of pizzas, calzones and salads plus a few appetizers and desserts. The owners aren't familiar names, either -- Maurizio and Sandra Cristiani, Tony and Karen Martingilio. The chef is an artist by the name of Alfredo Cello.
Yet Grazie opened to ovations, with its 50 interior seats packed to capacity through most of its operating hours (until 1 a.m., seven days a week). It's not unusual for management to snag unused chairs, and even tables, from parties in order to seat another grouping. When it's really busy, bodies spill out onto a light-bedecked patio seating another 40 guests.
There's plenty to look at, packed into every inch of space. Burnt orange and yellow sponge-painted walls play host to an eclectic collection of funky art, the colorful contributions of local artists. Cherry-wood tables are packed together on top of polished concrete floors, fronting a tiny but busy bar. Off to the side: a handmade Italian brick oven, sputtering flames from its wood-packed interior as it cranks forth pizzas. Half of the concept is dedicated to Italian wines by the glass, bottle and case (retail).
This is not a place to go for private conversation, certainly. Any little gaps in air space not already filled by clamoring guests and a bellowing pizza chef throb with the thump thump thump of high-tech music.
What could be too trendy is instead entirely casual, comfortable and fun. This pizza chef isn't shy, shouting over the rumble of guests to find out how much they like his pie. Servers are smooth, but realistic enough to know when they're defeated -- sometimes it's so busy, the tables so packed, that the only way to deliver plates is with a long reach. A delayed order wins my table complimentary glasses of wine, which is nice, though honestly we don't mind sitting around soaking up the scene.
I can afford to buy my own wine, anyway, since prices at Grazie are rock-bottom. Food commands $6 to $12; wines go for $5 a glass to $62 a bottle. I like the way the wine list is divided into taste preference, for example, light and refreshing up to medium-body whites; medium-body to full-body reds. It's not good that our waiter isn't knowledgeable enough to make recommendations, but he explains it's a new list, so I let it go.
There's nothing new or exotic on Grazie's menu, and that suits me just fine. These dishes are tributes to Italian classics, crafted with great skill and great ingredients, with no disappointments in the bunch.
How to improve on a piatto misto, layered with curls of salami, mortadella, prosciutto, provolone, Parmigiano and olives? At just $8, it's a plate that would be a cheap and filling snack alongside a dish of crusty bread and a glass of Tiefenbrunen Pinot Grigio. Bruschetta combines the traditional dainty basil and tomato atop grilled bread, but an optional topping of crumbly, fennel-studded Italian sausage makes it a he-man nibble. A splash of lemon vinaigrette adds sparkle to carpaccio, fashioned from bresaola (dry-cured, leaf-thin beef) and tossed with arugula and Parmigiano.
Ordering fornarina as an appetizer seems like overkill, the plate being a pizza pie topped with extra virgin olive oil, oregano and prosciutto, but when the salad arrives, the theory takes shape. These greens are gargantuan, great mounds spilling over the edges of huge soup bowls. Pizza as an appetizer, salad as an entree, a glass of wine, and wow.
Caesar is classic goodness, tears of fresh crunchy romaine in a thick, creamy dressing adorned with lots of finely grated Parmesan. Emiliana salad is a brightly colored, towering toss of arugula, baby greens, Parmigiano, red onions, red bell peppers and pine nuts in a pleasingly sharp, throat-clearing balsamic vinaigrette. And meaty tomatoes plus firm mozzarella are the stars of the caprese, dusted with basil and oregano under a gloss of extra-virgin olive oil.
Despite its high-rent district digs and gourmet ingredients, Grazie brings out bargain-priced pizza pies. Designed for one, easily shareable by two, the creations rest on bubbly, crisp-crusted dough, with plenty of carefully chosen toppings to shine through. The original, the Margherita, shows why Italians so quickly embraced the uncomplicated creation of zesty tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, basil, grated Parmigiano and drizzles of extra virgin olive oil. The same tomato-mozzarella base goes robust in a Toscana, with a topping of spicy Italian sausage and fresh mushrooms, or as Grazie America, with lots of pepperoni.
Still, the best pies are those with a little more substance, including a cleverly named Dame Edna, topped with mozzarella, arugula, Parmigiano and, hence the name I guess, prosciutto crudo (salty ham). Quattro stagioni is another stellar mix, uniting marinara, mozzarella, salami, mushrooms, ham and kalamata olives. By comparison, a straightforward vegetarian version is tame, mounded with mozzarella, fontina, Parmigiano, roasted red bell peppers and caramelized onions.
Chef Cello has a way with calzone, really nothing more interesting than pizza dough folded over pizza toppings and baked. But with the right dough and sublime stuffings, as served here, the ponderous plates fit quite elegantly alongside a bottle of Amarone Classico, 1997, Zenato ($62 by the bottle).
Consider the graceful Grazie, gorged with mozzarella, Gorgonzola, ricotta and fontina, the calzone under a nest of peppery arugula, sliced tomatoes and green onions. The Vesuvio takes the best of both pizza and calzone for a successful marriage of ricotta, ham and salami inside, with mushrooms, black olives and tomato sauce outside.
I'm returning for a midnight nosh of crostini, too, the crunchy ciabatta draped with melted mozzarella, butter and prosciutto, or salty, fishy anchovies. Or perhaps dessert -- the dessert della casa requires a twosome to tackle, lumbering out a generous sugared-dough calzone stuffed with a gooey, sweet-bitter blend of bananas, chocolate and hazelnuts. Tortine de frutta is another worthwhile calorie closer, the petite pizza pies blanketed with bananas, apples or peaches.
It wasn't so long along that the only answer to where to go for topnotch gourmet pizza in town was limited to two words: Pizzeria Bianco. Today, the list of suggestions requires a spin through my Rolodex. With this chic, affordable new pizzeria and wine bar, I've got another card to add. And for that, I say, Grazie.
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