First Taste

Fat Ox Delivers High-Style Modern Italian in Scottsdale (Including Top-Notch Pastas)

When a new spot opens in town, we can't wait to check it out — and let you know our initial impressions, share a few photos, and dish about some menu items. First Taste, as the name implies, is not a full-blown review, but instead a peek inside restaurants that have just opened, sampling a few items, and satisfying curiosities (yours and ours).

Restaurant: Fat Ox
Location: 6316 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale
Open: Less than two months
Eats: High-end, contemporary Italian
Price: $30-$50/person

Even on a Wednesday night, the air inside Fat Ox is electric. Men dressed in the modern Scottsdale uniform of breezy, light pastels shout happily at each other over the high-level din at the bar. In the high-top table section, women in stilettos sharp enough to double as ice-picks sip from oversize wine glasses and throw their heads back in laughter. Would-be diners waiting for an open table gather around the entrance like moths; even securing a reservation doesn't necessarily mean you won't have to wait for a table.

Fat Ox is the new hot spot on Scottsdale Road, an ambitious Italian restaurant resulting from a collaboration between chef Matt Carter (The Mission, Zinc Bistro, The House Brasserie) and partners Mark Drinkwater and Brian Raab. The high-powered trio has secured some of Arizona's top culinary talent to lead the kitchen, including Rochelle Daniel, formerly of L’Auberge de Sedona, now the chef de cuisine at Fat Ox.

A simple observation: Despite its dimly lit dining room and comfortable banquette seating, Fat Ox probably won't fit the bill if what you're seeking is a relaxing and intimate dinner. At the height of dinner service, the restaurant's slick, angular, nearly all-glass exterior results in a space with terrible acoustics. Shouting is part of the dinner repertoire.

If you can look past the restaurant's loud, glossy sheen, though, Fat Ox's take on contemporary Italian fare will reward you with bold and often inventive flavor. The Fat Ox  team have concocted a pricey, somewhat eccentric menu, with dishes that hew to no particular region, but which are tied together by a modern, haute sensibility applied to classic Italian flavors.

Caesar salad connoisseurs may delight in the restaurant's old-fashioned table-side preparation of the classic starter salad. The Caesar here strays slightly from its most classic configuration — the Fat Ox version involves crisp flakes of gem lettuce, white balsamic, anchovy, a scattering of pleasingly rustic Parmesan croutons, a touch of fresh basil, capers, and a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil. You can opt out of the capers, if you wish, but with or without them, the salad achieves a very nice balance: tangy and slightly sweet, full of fresh texture.

If a plate of freshly made pasta brings you a disproportionate amount of joy and pleasure, you will probably want to wade through the crowds at Fat Ox just for the sake of freshly made pasta. The restaurant is already turning out one of the most singular and clever pasta menus around town, full of slightly esoteric extruded and stuffed pastas, made in-house daily and served in very small, artfully plated portions.

A highlight is the casoncelli, small, buttery bundles sealed and twisted to evoke the shape and size of a candy wrapper. The pasta is filled with a very rich, sweet paste of butternut squash, kissed by sage and buoyed by butter and bright kernels of fresh pomegranate. A light dusting of crumbled amaretti cookie adds a delicious accent. There's also a wonderful rigatoni lamb verde, a mint-hued, tube-shaped pasta, dusted with fennel pollen and pecorino, served with a sort of creamy, buttery lamb bolognese.

If you're in a spendy or hungry mood, the kitchen will indulge you with a shareable $110 dry-aged porterhouse steak. There are also lighter options, like a Scottish salmon served in an apricot agridolce sauce.

An entree like the Duroc pork tomahawk, though, seems the right speed if you're looking for the sweet spot between those two culinary poles. And, on a recent dinner visit, the pork chop was beautifully seasoned and cooked, cleanly sliced and brightened with paper-thin slices of apple and scatterings of fennel. It was served with a small pot of cannellini beans, buttery and hearty.

It's also worth exploring the restaurant's small rotisserie chicken menu. The Jidori chicken (the Waygu of chickens), ordered "a la diavolo" style, is roasted over charcoal and basted in a ruddy, peppery sauce.

The sauce carries just enough heat to tickle your palate, but it's the juicy half-chicken, skillfully cooked and paired with fresh herbs and slices of radishes, that makes for a balanced, texture-rich dish. The entree is paired with a small pan of very creamy, cheesy side of polenta, which only adds to the flavor-rich abundance and comforting, Sunday dinner appeal of the dish.

Fat Ox, with its lively setting and impressive concentration of culinary talent, is full of high-level energy and dazzling flavors. Let's hope it can keep up the pace, and maybe smooth out the halting wait times, if only for the sake of more pasta.

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Patricia Escárcega was Phoenix New Times' food critic.