The most superlative pizza I've ever scarfed was from storefront pizzerias in Manhattan and Brooklyn, usually after stumbling out of some tavern. But even when I was sober as the dreaded parson, pizza was the grub that kept me going in Gotham. And nothing that I've tasted outside the Five Boroughs has challenged the supremacy of its pizzerias, at least in the good ol' U.S. of A.
That said, Cibo, the new upscale pizza joint at Fifth Avenue and Fillmore Street, may come closer than any other pie shop, high-end or otherwise, in Phoenix to producing something on a par with the Big Apple's flatbread nosh. Not that I'd call what Cibo creates "New York-style" pizza. Rather, Cibo's pies have a more Italian flair, a result of young pizza maestro Guido Saccone's sweat and toil before Cibo's wood-fueled brick oven. Saccone hails from Caserta, just northeast of Naples, the birthplace of modern pizza, and he earned his stripes whipping up hundreds of pies a day in his brother's restaurant in Caserta. All of his pizzas have the same thin, ultra-fresh crust, best eaten as soon as it's ready.
Saccone's craftsmanship is one reason Cibo, the new kid on the block, is hard on the heels of the competition. But it's Cibo's owners, Karen and Tony Martingilio, onetime partners in Scottsdale's still-thriving Grazie Pizzeria and Winebar, who get the credit for putting Saccone on the job, and for turning the handsome 1913 house Cibo inhabits into an inviting 50-seat eatery, with stained-glass paneling, wood floors, track lighting, brick walls, and a small but appealing wine bar. With candlelit tables, and three different rooms for diners, the structure offers the sort of romantic, intimate experience that's perfect for couples and smaller parties. However, there's already talk of expansion to the front lawn sometime in the near future.
603 North Fifth Avenue (at Fillmore Street)
Pesto salad: $8
Marinara pizza: $9
Diavola pizza: $12
Crepes suzette: $7
Hours: Monday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.
Cibo is Italian for "nourishment" or "food," and the word is pronounced "chee-bo." True to its name, it's the place's alimentary delights that really win you over. In addition to the pizzas, which I'll get to shortly, the antipasti are also above average, especially the pesto salad and the "antipasto speciale." The former is a mix of organic greens, with sliced tubers, grape tomatoes, shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano, and a basil-pesto dressing, all topped with pine nuts. I don't know why it is, but pine nuts always seem to make such greenery taste better. And when I'm Pharaoh of Foodstuffs, all salads will be served with pine nuts from coast to bleedin' coast.
As for the "antipasto speciale," it was special, all right. The "small" is enough for two to share, and for one to make a meal of, almost. Along with prosciutto and bresaola (dried, thinly sliced beef), there were roasted red peppers, grilled zucchini, arugula, cipollini, and a selection of different olives the menu calls "a fantasy of olives," though personally the only fantasy I've ever had that included olives involved myself and the young Ava Gardner as castaways on a deserted Greek island.
Of all of Saccone's 12-inch pies, I especially adored the purity of the Marinara, which was just pizza crust with tomato sauce, garlic, oregano and anchovies. Most of the time, cheese gets in the way of my enjoyment of the blood of the tomato, so the Marinara is the perfect pie for me. Runner-up would probably be the Funghi, which may sound like a pair of old sneakers, but is a quite appetizing combination of sauce, mozzarella and mushrooms -- nature's oft-scrumptious "fungus among us."
The Diavola, with its salami and mozzarella, did not have the bite I'd anticipated from its moniker, which makes one think of those fiery diavolo sauces turned tear-inducing with chiles. But aside from the salami, nothing else about the pizza was the least bit spicy. Perhaps Saccone could create a tangy-hot tomato sauce for use just on the Diavola. Then I'd really be partial to it.
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Otherwise, I had great fun masticating my way through Cibo's bill of fare: the Capricciosa featuring prosciutto, artichokes, black olives and mushrooms; the Salsiccia with sausage and mozzarella; and the Margherita, the Queen of all Pies, sporting an edible royal robe of tomato sauce, mozzarella and fresh basil. Normally I don't care for "pizze bianche," or white pizza, but the Tricolore, a mozzarella pie topped after baking with arugula, then bresaola, and finally shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano, earned bravos from me.
The promise of dessert after so much bread did not immediately woo me. But Cibo's selection of crepes changed my mind. The crepes suzette, flamed tableside, were light and decadent, an intense, sugary burst of orange from the Grand Marnier and marmalade filling. The crepe stuffed with Nutella and mascarpone and sprinkled over with powdered sugar was only slightly more subtle, like a swath of hazelnut-flavored velvet being pulled slowly across your tongue. There are other crepes offered, and I may go back simply to sample the remainder.
My wish list for Cibo includes a beefed-up selection of wines by the glass, and perhaps some Italian sodas as well. But otherwise I'm quite taken with the warm and efficient service at the lovely house in which the Martingilios operate, not to mention the food. I should note that not long after this review is published, Cibo will be on vacation from Sunday, August 28, through Thursday, September 1, so that Saccone can go on a honeymoon with his new bride, Michelle, who works at Cibo as a waitress. Cibo reopens for First Friday on September 2. Look for lunch hours, eventually. But once they kick in, I suspect a day off for Cibo will be rare indeed.
Cibo has already earned a measure of popularity in its neighborhood and beyond. There will be the inevitable comparisons to Pizzeria Bianco, but the pizza is better at Cibo. The crust is not smoky, nor are the toppings overly salty like some at chez Bianco. Cibo also lacks the pretentiousness and, thankfully for the time being, the ungodly wait. I hope Cibo remains superior in all respects. So while members of the Cult of Bianco linger for a scrap like the faithful at Lourdes, I'm at a table at Cibo, noshing on what is now the best pizza in town.