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  • Resturants: Ethnic and Specialty
What, exactly, is New American food? Nobody really knows. But ultimately, it seems to come down to presenting diners with dishes they think they might know, but then, surprise! There's some crazy twist to keep you scratching your head. Often, it's delicious in an exciting kind of way; at Cowboy Ciao, the surprise is always spectacular. Executive chef Bernie Kantak has come up with dishes like chile gratin (elk, beef loin, white beans, smoked Cheddar and Gouda); rare tuna with ground hops and chamomile over curried chow-chow and mango soy; or peppercorn ostrich tenderloin with blackberry compote and cocoa-nib mashed Yukon golds. You may think you know what you're in for with grilled duck breasts, but then Kantak sideswipes you with apple-chipotle marinade, ancho-pecan chutney and smoked Gouda grits. You may not always recognize the dinners at Cowboy Ciao, but you're going to love them.

This no-frills joint stuck in a strip mall between stores that sell cheap water and cigarettes has a devoutly loyal following, and with good reason. It's the place to go for happily inexpensive southern Italian fare, lunch or dinner. The owner, a Jewish Italophile who is the principal cellist for the Phoenix Symphony, is apt to greet you at the door and recommend his special of the day before you order at the front counter. The venerable staff (some of them have worked there for years) will fix your meal any way you like it. These days, with everyone and his mother on some kind of diet, that can mean an awful lot: If you ask, the guys will whip you up an antipasto that the late Dr. Atkins would appreciate from low-carb, high-protein heaven. A meal at Giuseppe's isn't complete without the sampler plate of bruschetta. It starts with a toasted piece of Italian bread topped with tomato, garlic and herbs, and goes from there (cheeses, meats and grilled vegetables). Three pieces for five bucks is an eminently fair price. Oh, and don't forget to BYOB. The bottle of vino you bring in probably will cost you more than the entire meal itself.

Readers' Choice for Best Italian Restaurant: Olive Garden

At some point, the meaning of "gourmet" has been lost. It's come to mean crazy, wild concoctions, with bizarre foods and even weirder combinations. But actually, gourmet means "a connoisseur of fine food and drink." So there's no better restaurant to celebrate fine food and drink than at Rancho Pinot. Co-owner Tom Kaufman is a wine genius, with a hugely clever and creative wine list (love the illustrations!). Co-owner Chrysa Kaufman is a food genius, and leader of the Phoenix chapter of Slow Food, an international group that cherishes farm-fresh foods, natural ingredients, and the joy of relaxing over a meticulously prepared meal.

The Kaufmans can get a bit wacko in their intense drive to prepare the most perfect food (don't ask for substitutions). But it's only from their obsession for the best in every bite of food, every sip of drink. The menu changes constantly, depending on what is the best available from organic farms and local artisans, and by what Chrysa deems acceptable to her creative skills.

Try this place once, and learn the difference between just food, and true art.

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