When pizza guru/restaurateur Chris Bianco brought chef Claudio Urciuoli onboard to run his generically named Italian Restaurant -- which opened in Central Phoenix last January -- the partnership promised to be interesting, at the very least.
Both men have earned stellar reputations for their meticulous sourcing, and both have definite opinions about what Italian food is and isn't. As it turns out, their opinions regarding the direction this particular Italian restaurant should take simply were too different to make the alliance work.
The two have parted ways amicably, and if the conversations I had with each today are any indication -- both offering such a flurry of "good luck" and "I love you, man" -- there's no denying they're still brothers from another mother.
But tastes definitely differ.
For his part, Urciuoli wanted what might best be described as an Italian-Italian restaurant, offering the seafood he grew up on in Campania as well as other interesting, authentic dishes Valley locals might not have seen before.
Bianco, on the other hand, prefers the "simple, less is more" Italian-American food of his own childhood. "The restaurant didn't feel like my intention," Bianco acknowledges.
It's a sentiment Urciuoli obviously agrees with, adding, "He has one vision; I have another."
Clearly, Bianco respects his bro's mad skills. "I don't want to take someone out of their zone," he says of Urciuoli, who presided over three resort restaurants -- Taggia, Different Pointe of View and Prado -- before heading to Pane Bianco in 2010. Robbie Tutlewski, a 28-year-old Pane Bianco alum with a "good pedigree," will be taking over the kitchen at Italian Restaurant.
"His style is still developing," notes Bianco, while "an experienced chef already has his own template." Bianco insists that it wasn't a bad review that prompted the split (our own Laura Hahnefeld wrote a positive "First Bite" column in January), but there's no doubt word on the street has been mixed. I've heard personally from more than one unhappy diner. On social media, reports are that service is horrible, and the portions are small for the price, although the latter complaint is contested by a handful of food-lovers who say they've left Italian Restaurant full and happy.
These same people have sworn the house-made pasta is terrific. One of them is John Mariani, who visited Phoenix last week while on assignment for Esquire magazine. Not that his experience was entirely sanguine. In a phone interview, he adds, "The place was more than half-empty when we got there, and the service was lackluster, at best."
Lackluster service? For John Mariani?? I've been on restaurant visits with this guy, and the service he receives is accommodating to the point of painful obsequiousness. So if Italian Restaurant's servers can't muster up a smidge of hustle and good cheer for a national writer, God knows how the Average Joe is being treated.
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Bianco has some work to do, and he knows it. The arrogant you're-lucky-to-be-eating-here attitude some of his servers portray should be Job One. And if he does the food he loves, we'll probably love it, too.
As for Claudio Urciuoli, we'll keep you posted about what he's up to. Expect a guest chef gig come summer.