Sometimes Phoenix can be a tough nut to crack.
When it comes to finding the most intriguing local restaurants, this is like few other cities. You can't just head downtown and stumble upon streets lined with eateries. You can't explore an area and figure it out in an afternoon. Things are still too spread out, too tucked away in random retail strips. If you stick only to the dense, more walkable areas — like Old Town Scottsdale and Mill Avenue in Tempe — you'll miss out on so much.
Have you seen those T-shirts that say "PHX Ain't Easy"? Well, interpret those as you will, but I think they speak to the kind of determination it takes to find interesting places in Phoenix. Nobody's gonna hand them all to you on a silver platter (although I certainly attempt to). Phoenicians simply have to be more resourceful and more plugged in. We have to try harder to find the good stuff.
1541 East Baseline Road
Rajas gratin: $9
Italian sausage pizza: $12
Hours: 5 to 9 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday, and 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Sunday brunch, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
A savvy friend clued me in to Amano Bistro, a charming neighborhood Italian joint where owners Eric and Kathy Bower have been quietly serving up homey Italian food in South Phoenix for the past five years.
That's right — South Phoenix. Situated next to a Shell station and across from an empty lot on Baseline Road, it's an unlikely location. But there are plenty of newer housing developments just north of here, and from Tempe or downtown Phoenix, it's actually a quick jaunt.
On the outside, the freestanding brick building is blink-and-you'll-miss-it modest, but the welcoming spirit is apparent as soon as you cross the threshold. Wine bins are lined up along a lipstick-red wall behind the compact bar, while a burgundy banquette snakes around the perimeter of the butter-hued dining room. There's a big picture window next to booths at the front, and a few tables scattered in between. On one of them, an oversize bunch of silk flowers sprouts from a celadon vase.
To drink, I would've been content to stick to wine here — and for the most part, I did, especially the time I visited on a Tuesday and found out about the half-price bottles. A welcome perk! The affordable selection was focused on California labels, bolstered by some South American picks and a few from Italy.
But I'd also heard good things about the champagne margarita, a tasty little concoction that's so potent, they won't let you order more than one. Seriously. It's three-quarters margarita and one-quarter champagne, with a sweet splash of pomegranate liqueur if you choose. There was a plump blackberry floating in mine, and I knew after one sip why these things are dangerous. They're deceptively smooth.
Appetizers such as the Caprese salad were simple and classic — fresh, milky mozzarella, thick slices of ripe tomato, basil chiffonade, and a drizzle of good olive oil. I liked the bruschetta of the day even more, thanks to yellow tomatoes and arugula piled on crisp toasts with melted provolone. Why don't more places try different kinds of tomatoes? These were sweet and juicy, a nice counterpoint to the spicy greens.
Rajas gratin didn't grab my attention until I asked the waitress to describe it — poblano chiles, onions, garlic, mushrooms, and cream, with a little bit of bacon thrown in? Oh, yes. Sign me up. Sign my whole table up. This dish was as decadent as we'd all hoped, an oozing, piping hot dip served with a big platter of toast points. We knew we'd be spoiling our appetites, but we just couldn't resist.
Amano Bistro makes lovely hand-tossed pizzas with a crisp, chewy crust. I gobbled up the heady white pizza with garlic, olive oil, basil, Romano cheese, and mozzarella — the two-cheese combo was mouthwatering. Another pie, with sweet Italian sausage, roasted red peppers, caramelized fennel, and gooey Fontina on top of tomato sauce was just as alluring.
And just to satisfy my curiosity, I had to order the semolina crust Margherita pizza "for two." I'm glad I did — and I'm glad I brought friends to help eat this huge thing. Unlike the hand-tossed pies on the menu, the dough for this special pizza was rolled out really thin to achieve a light, crunchy crust that somehow stayed intact underneath sauce, melted mozzarella, and cherry tomatoes. Although the crust was nothing like a New York-style pizza, the sweetness of the sauce, combined with the cheese, reminded me of a place back East. Needless to say, it didn't last long.
As easy as it would've been to fill up on pizza and nibbles, the pastas and entrees were well-crafted — particularly tender gnocchi in fresh sage butter, served with a jumble of roasted zucchini, green beans, and peppers. Eggplant rollatini, slathered in tomato sauce, was stuffed with creamy ricotta, while tomato and garlic confit orzo made a punchy side dish. And puttanesca-style linguini, studded with olives and capers, was jazzed up with both shrimp and salmon.
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Roasted chicken breast, filled with pesto and teamed with fettuccine alfredo, sounded appealing, but this was the lone disappointment at Amano. Somehow, the entire dish lacked salt. As it turned out, prosciutto linguini delivered the rich, creamy satisfaction that the fettuccine should've had. Packed with garlic and Parmesan, the linguine was one of the most seductive things on the menu.
A thick slice of tiramisu, adorned with tiny chocolate chips, and thick crème brûlée, capped in a caramelized cap of molten sugar, made a suitable finale to such luscious dishes. Isn't it amazing how there's always extra room for a few more bites when dessert shows up?
Like so many of Phoenix's independent neighborhood spots, Amano Bistro is a completely unexpected, completely delightful little find. Thank goodness for word of mouth.