Marcellino Ristorante
Molly Smith
This past year has been a busy one for Sima and Marcellino Verzino. The dynamic husband-and-wife team left their longtime digs on Northern Avenue in Phoenix (a humble strip mall that made discovering Marcellino's incredible Italian cuisine all the more delightful) for a much swankier setting on Scottsdale's Stetson Drive, at SouthBridge. Finally, the atmosphere really matches the caliber of the food. Unlike some well-known chefs in the Valley, chef Marcellino is a fixture in his own kitchen, and it shows in jaw-dropping dishes like handmade squid ink pasta in a lightly spicy fresh tomato sauce, brimming with mussels, clams, and half a lobster. Sure, this place is one of the biggest splurges around, but well worth it.
Andreoli Italian Grocer
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
Part Italian deli and part casual Italian eatery, Andreoli Italian Grocer does double duty with panache. Owner Giovanni Scorzo has stocked the shelves and deli counter with plenty of tempting imported goods, but better yet, he's crafted an impressive selection of housemade breads, cheeses, salami, and sausage, so you know your panino is as fresh as can be. Memorable antipasti and salads such as fried potatoes and leeks, marinated grilled calamari, bresaola with shaved Parmesan and arugula, and creamy homemade mozzarella with tomato and basil are fun to nibble on any time of day (join the regular crowd of Italians in the lively dining room), while daily specials like vitello tonnato and handmade pastas are perfect for a casual but substantial dinner.
BLT Steak
As the stereotypical upscale steakhouse goes completely masculine, from the ambiance to the unabashedly carnivorous menu, BLT Steak seduces in a different way, with a luxurious, varied, and French-inspired menu, as well as a surprisingly urban atmosphere (given the restaurant's location at the serenely gorgeous desert resort Camelback Inn). It makes perfect sense, though, when you learn that award-winning French chef Laurent Tourondel — who owns world-class restaurants in several metropolises — is the creative spirit behind the operation. So, yes, there are exquisite steaks, served with a choice of luscious sauces. But there are also dishes like sautéed Dover sole, juicy veal chops, and tuna tartare, giving us even more reasons to joyfully blow our budget at this fabulous joint.
Durant's
The past few years have seen a serious proliferation of steak houses across the Valley, each one with a different take on enjoying a good hunk of animal flesh. It's certainly fun to try them out as if we were trying on different outfits, but when a perfect New York strip and a martini are what suit us, we head to Durant's for the vintage vibe, where we're surrounded by red velvet wallpaper and lavish flower arrangements. Cozied up in the lounge slurping oysters or hanging out in one of the big booths feasting on shrimp cocktail, we feel stylish in such a timeless way. Durant's may be old school, but it'll never get old.
Zinc Bistro
David Holden
Seems there's always a European vacation gnawing at the back of our mind, but the reality of hopping the pond is usually a pipe dream. Good thing we can indulge in our Francophile fantasies at Zinc Bistro anytime we want. It's like a tiny patch of Paris planted in our own backyard, complete with a chic dining room, a see-and-be-seen patio that wraps around the side, and thoughtfully prepared French bistro cuisine. Delicate salads and fresh, briny oysters, flat iron steak with frites, braised lamb shank, and a lusty chocolate soufflé — there's never really a time when we're not hungry for all this and more.
El Coquito
We're probably not fooling anyone — our pick for "Best Puerto Rican" is, as of press time, also the only place for Puerto Rican. Yet it's no less deserving of the honor. Owner Jaime Acevedo brings his Puerto Rican heritage to the Valley via New York City, which is evident from the Yankees jerseys and memorabilia on the walls at this pint-size strip mall nook. And like the best Puerto Rican neighborhood joints in Nueva York, El Coquito dishes up island soul food like stick-to-your-ribs mofongo (mashed fried plantains topped with meat), slow-roasted pork, and an assortment of such deep-fried cuchifritos as bacalaitos (crispy salted cod, best eaten with a squeeze of lemon) and relleno de papa (mashed potato balls filled with ground beef). The food's delightful enough, but if you really want to have a fiesta, bring your own booze. The velvety coconut coquito drink is heavenly with a shot of rum.
Guru Palace of India
Jamie Peachey
We've been in love with Guru Palace since we first set eyes on a luscious bowl of chicken tikka masala here, with moist chunks of meat soaked in buttery, tomato-ginger gravy. Even after we'd eaten the chicken, we couldn't resist spooning more of that tasty sauce over a steaming scoop of basmati rice. Turns out, everything at Guru Palace is just as enticing as that first dish we tried. Guru Palace specializes in Northern Indian cuisine, which means excellent marinated meat specialties and several kinds of bread (naan, paratha, kulcha) cooked in the tandoor, a special clay oven. The array of vegetarian dishes is impressive, although there are just as many interesting meat and seafood options, including lamb done up a half-dozen ways. This "palace" may be located in a strip mall, but it still gives you the royal treatment.
Al-Hana Restaurant at Baiz Market Place
Laura Segall
So what if this restaurant is really just a lunch counter and a handful of tables sectioned off from a Middle Eastern grocery store? That doesn't make Al-Hana — located inside of Baiz Market, next to the cash registers — any less delightful. Consider the open kitchen, where you can see white-clad cooks slice your succulent chicken shawarma right off the rotating spit, dunk falafel in the fryer, or pull a tray of hot, fresh pita right out of the oven before one lands on your plate. From the creamy, lip-smacking hummus and juicy shish taook (marinated chicken) to buttery, gooey knafeh (a dessert of melted cheese beneath a buttery crust, drizzled with sugary syrup and sprinkled with pistachios), everything here is as fresh as can be. We recommend doing your eating before you go shopping, lest you go completely overboard in the aisles.
Restaurant Takamatsu
Our favorite Korean restaurant distinguishes itself in more ways than one. The food's amazing, of course, and the service is downright jovial — we always feel welcome at this homey spot. Just as appealing is the atmosphere, which draws groups of Korean families and hungry businessmen alike. We're hooked on the wonderful smell of sizzling meat here, which gets our stomachs rumbling for juicy kalbi (beef short ribs), bulgogi (thinly sliced marinated beef), buttery pork belly, chicken, and shrimp. Although we're quite familiar with this interactive, cook-it-yourself way of dining, it's always comforting when the helpful staff stops by to keep an eye on things and make sure the cold beer's flowing. Dinner at Takamatsu is a guaranteed way to forget about the world and just enjoy the moment.
Sushi Ken
Lauren Saria
When all our Japanese friends started telling us Sushi Ken was their favorite place in town, we wasted no time in heading down to Ahwatukee for a sushi fix. Sure enough, the sushi here is great, but there's so much more to the menu that makes us happy. From savory ramen noodle soup that satisfies with its complex broth to tempura and crispy tonkatsu pork, Sushi Ken covers all the bases and keeps it real. This is straightforward, family-style eating just like you'd find in Japan, right down to the desserts (mitsumame, a cold, sweet jelly served with fruit, is a rarity in Phoenix, but they have it here). The only thing that could make this place better would be to pick it up and plunk it down right next to our house.

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