I doubt I'm the first person to say this, but I'm certain I won't be the last: First Street and Pierce has become the coolest corner in downtown Phoenix.
It happened in a flash. A year ago, it was a culinary no man's land (unless you count the Pizza Hut on the west side of the street), but nowadays you can get Asian tapas, Italian pasta, and Irish pub grub, all in the same building. They all serve alcohol, which makes barhopping pretty easy, doesn't it? Around the corner, there's a Jamaican restaurant. The area still seems a little sleepy, although once word gets out that there's good food to be found, I expect the pace to pick up.
That's what Wade Moises is hoping for, too. He's the chef-owner of PastaBAR, a relaxed neighborhood Italian spot that opened a little over a month ago.
705 North First Street, Suite 110
Marinated farm vegetables: $10
Bavette al Cedro: $12
Chitarra all Carbonara: $17
Charred calamari: $7
602-687-8704, Web link
Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to midnight, Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.
Although this is Moises' debut as a restaurateur, he's already a well-known entity in the local scene, thanks to his previous gig as executive chef of Sassi, as well as his earlier stints at Lupa and Babbo, two celebrated Mario Batali restaurants in Manhattan. That Moises, along with former Sassi sous chef Nick Gentry (who's now a partner at PastaBAR), would leave the luxe north Scottsdale fine-dining spot to open a tiny joint in an emerging Phoenix neighborhood is both a vote of confidence and a small leap of faith.
PastaBAR is like a hidden speakeasy. Tucked in the back of the building fronted by Sens and The Turf, it's got absolutely no street visibility, although as of press time, Moises assures me that signage should be up any day. They need it.
Inside, the atmosphere is vibrant and a little quirky, with a bar just inside the door, stark red and white walls, mustard-colored banquette seating with colorful striped cushions, an enormous mirror at the end of the room, and some unusual artwork — a series of pop art canvases depicting sociopaths like Jim Jones and Timothy McVeigh. Why on Earth is the late, great Hunter S. Thompson included in the otherwise menacing lineup? I have no idea, although it makes for provocative dinner conversation.
The menu is streamlined, nothing tops out over $17, and portions are fairly generous; the bowls of pasta may not seem very big until you dig in and realize how rich they are. There are several rustic appetizers, eight handmade pastas inspired by Moises' travels in southern Italy, and various meat dishes somewhat confusingly labeled as "sides." In reality, they're big enough to share or eat as an entrée; two meatballs, for example, were as big as baseballs.
Speaking of entrées, I know what I'd be happy to eat all by myself next time I'm at PastaBAR: the excellent burrata appetizer. (Side note: For more than a year, I've written up sporadic "burrata alerts" on New Times' food blog, Chow Bella, whenever I've noticed the trendy cheese on local menus.) Here, it's described as mere mozzarella, but it's definitely burrata, a huge ball of fresh mozzarella with a cream- and mozzarella-filled center. It tasted great with ripe tomatoes, a pinch of anchovies, and lip-smacking pesto drenched with extra virgin olive oil from Queen Creek Olive Mill.
Moises is big on using local purveyors such as Sunizona Family Farms and Desert Sweet Shrimp. A good example of this was a simple salad comprising Bob McClendon's dark, leafy greens, a light vinaigrette, some Parmigiano shavings, and an oozy, over-easy egg from Maya's Farm.
There was also a nice marinated local farm vegetable antipasto with pickled Romanesco, some roasted carrots and baby yellow beets tossed in balsamic, and a heap of sliced blood orange with shaved Parm and flecks of fresh mint. It was a refreshing foil for the fritto misto, a variety plate of fried snacks, including delicately crispy broccolini, sausage-stuffed olives, and balls of creamy risotto dunked in hot oil.
Among the fresh pastas, I enjoyed the texture of the thick, toothsome chitarra (sort of a square-cut spaghetti); flat, thin strands of bavette; and plump, round orecchiette ("little ears') — all perfectly cooked and fun to sink my teeth into. Gnocchi were pleasantly light (though not the most ethereal I've had), while fettuccine was described diplomatically by one of my dining companions as "unwieldy." I found it impossible to slurp up the flat, heavy ribbons with any grace.
That said, the fettuccine y finocchio — Moises' twist on a classic Sicilian dish — was one of the more memorable flavor combinations I tasted, a heady mix of fennel purée, roasted garlic, butter, golden raisins, fresh shaved fennel, red pepper flakes, crouton bits, and a smidge of salty anchovy (instead of the traditional sardines). It was spicy but balanced, as was the orecchiette alla puttanesca, with its bright jumble of green olives, capers, anchovy, and crouton bits in sweet red tomato sauce.
But I was taken off-guard by the gnocchi alla Lupa, spooned with sweet fennel sausage ragu. Honestly, I couldn't taste the fennel, and I couldn't discern any sausage — it was that spicy. And Moises tells me this is the same dish he used to cook at Lupa. Since I haven't eaten at Lupa in many years, I couldn't compare this to the original; all I know is that I wasn't expecting so much heat. It was a decent dish, just not what I anticipated. The flavor of sausage was much more evident when it was teamed with orecchiette and wilted greens.
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Chitarra alla carbonara, with bacon from The Meat Shop, onion, creamy egg, and Pecorino, was exactly what I expected in a carbonara, while bavette al Cedro — simply prepared, with lemon, butter, Parmigiano, and strips of lemon peel — was a welcome surprise, with a whiff of citrus. Fettuccine Tagliatta married salty Parmigiano and tender slices of rib eye with the sweet acidity of ripe cherry tomatoes and a handful of peppery arugula.
One night, tart lemon granita with a froth of cream was offered as the lone sweet dish, but desserts aren't part of the regular lineup here. I anticipated as much on a later visit, and instead loaded up on more of the side dishes. Beef meatballs didn't wow me — loved the seasonings, loved the balsamic-onion sauce, didn't love the too-firm texture. Meanwhile, browned homemade sausage patties, topped with sprigs of rosemary and thinly sliced orange, were juicy and meaty, more along the lines of what I like in a meatball.
Slow-roasted pork shoulder got some aromatic oomph from soft garlic cloves, while the charred calamari was one of the best dishes at PastaBAR — mouthwatering and super-tender, tossed with Italian parsley, thinly sliced red chile, and roasted garlic.
Sure, PastaBAR has some kinks to work out, but I think it'll find its stride. If this is any indication of where downtown dining is headed, the future looks promising, indeed.