The fish case at Nelson's is one of the true marvels of the metro Phoenix food scene. Sometimes, the marine creatures inside are so rare and fresh they look lifted from science fiction. Big-lipped golden tilefish. Purple-veined Spanish mackerel roe. Chain-mailed sardines from Greece, dead eyes looking alive. Chris Nelson only flies in fish overnight. He has impeccable sources that hook him up with products that are mesmerizing. This is where to go when you want to cook seafood for someone you love, or to taste for yourself the glories of a scallop that was resting on a Massachusetts seabed yesterday.

On Fridays, Lior and Lily Ben-Shushan bake Moroccan bread coated with dark green za'atar like meadows covered in grass. Fluffy, rich with a buttery heft, this bread, uneven with hills and valleys, has the robustness of a stellar, hardly credible baked good — and a flavor like the smell of a garden, out there with your feet in the dirt and your nose in tomato plants. Almond croissants will have you seeing visions of cobblestone streets in European cities like Paris or Rome. Rugelach and challah come in many flavors, babka comes in chocolate and halva versions, and the hardest thing you have to do in a week when you stop into this bakery, by far, is to choose what to buy.

We still recall with horror the days when gluten-free baked goods were dry, bad-tasting, oddly textured, or a combination of all three. Thankfully, we're living in a golden age of GF baking, and the latest reason to cheer is sweetDee's Bakeshop, a newcomer to Old Town Scottsdale. Not everything in the shop is cleared for the gluten-free crowd, but there are a number of GF goodies to choose from every time we step into sweetDee's light, airy interior, things like fat brownies iced with cappuccino cream cheese frosting, lemon bars topped with perfectly toasted marshmallows, mini doughnuts (glazed and unglazed), several types of cookies, an out-of-this world vanilla Fruity Pebbles cheesecake, and more. The lineup changes constantly, so we recommend visiting often to see what owner Danielle O'Day has dreamed up. And in addition to what comes out of the oven, sweetDee's has a dynamite beverage menu and a small selection of breakfast and lunch dishes, all of which have a GF substitution available.

Sweeties Candy of Arizona

Our dentist told us to stay away, but we'll never give up our visits to Sweeties, which bills itself as Arizona's largest candy store. Our inner child goes positively berserk as we wander the brightly lit store that carries virtually everything you could want: retro sweets such as circus peanuts and Necco wafers; today's favorites, like Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and Kit Kats; hard-to-find flavors; bulk candy bins; and obscure brands that run the gamut from Abba-Zaba to Zotz. And in case you need more indulgences, there's gum, dozens of soda flavors, savory snacks, frozen treats, and toys. It's probably the closest we'll ever come to a trip to Willy Wonka's choolate factory, and with so much fun, sweetness, and delight to be found around every corner, Sweeties makes us feel like a kid in a ... well, you know.

Zak's Chocolate
Chris Malloy

It's not an overstatement to say that the arrival of Zak's Chocolate changed the local food scene. The small-batch chocolatier's products have found their way into AZ Wilderness Brewery beer and Iconic Cocktail Co. mixers, but we like our Zak's best in its simplest form. There's plenty to choose from at the Scottsdale store, from gleaming truffles in unique flavors like Earl Grey lavender and ginger lime, to brownie flights showcasing chocolate sourced from different countries. There is also cocoa powder and baking bars to add a special touch to your own kitchen endeavors. But if you're really a purist, just grab a handful of Zak's single-origin chocolate bars; the bars are made with cocoa beans from Haiti, Nicaragua, Papua New Guinea, Peru, and other nations, and each has a distinct flavor profile that provides a delicious exploration of chocolate's possibilities.

About a year ago, founder Jared Allen sold Proof Bread to loyal customers Jon Przybyl and Amanda Abou-Eid. The husband-and-wife team have done their sensei proud, emerging as baking masters in their own right. The journey from starter to finished loaf of Proof sourdough lasts some 30 hours. That journey takes place in a Mesa garage filled with work stations, dusty light, and cooling racks. This sourdough has a crisp but chewy structure and the style's trademark mild tang. Long fermentation and great care give each loaf the spirit of grain fields — deeply complex, deeply comforting. You can find Proof products at several local farmers markets.

When you think of focaccia, you probably think of puffy, airy bread mountainous with crags and bubbles from baking. Well, think again. Stefano Fabbri has been crafting a thinner focaccia which he says is in the style of Recco, a small coastal town in Liguria, Italy. Fabbri is a master of dough. His pizza joint, Pomo Pizzeria Napoletana, the one adjoining Luna, is one of the best in the Valley. The dough that becomes Fabbri's Focaccia di Recco has no yeast. What results is a crackly wafer, one in which each fissure leaks molten Stracchino cheese. There is snap, shatter, and some of the lightness of a Neapolitan pizza. And if you really want to tickle your senses, order this focaccia with truffle honey.

Ollie Vaughn's
Lauren Saria

When it comes to breakfast at Ollie Vaughn's, we love the avocado toast, the ricotta pancakes, and the pork chile verde. Sometimes we even order them. But usually we cave and order the lox bagel, because, well, if we don't, we spend the rest of the day wishing we had. Ollie's chewy, fresh-baked everything bagel is heaped with herb cream cheese and dotted with tangy capers. Crunchy red onions are a perfect accompaniment to a giant pile of thinly shaved lox so fresh we wonder if there isn't a salmon farm somewhere in the building. What we're saying here is that are lox bagels, and then there is the lox bagel at Ollie Vaughn's.

Mora Italian
Mora Italian

A relative newcomer makes the best pasta in Phoenix. The pasta at Scott Conant's Mora is actually made in the Gainey Ranch location of Pomo Pizzeria Napoletana, where curls of noodles emerge from extruders during the day. (Pomo's Stefano Fabbri has been involved with Mora.) The pasta at Mora has the right balance of chew, softness, mild grainy flavor, absorbency, and style. It isn't too thick or wheaty to the point that bites would be too intrusive or too gummy. Black campanelle look sexy as hell and are perfect for clams and Fresno chiles. A sausage and porcini ragu flirts closely with being too heavy, but is saved by expert torchio, pasta twists with chew and swagger to match the sauce.

Pizzeria Bianco
Jacob Tyler Dunn

It would be cool and rogue to pick a top pizza other than those crafted by Chris Bianco's crew. It would also be about as true as saying the earth is flat. Bianco's pizza is one of the few mouthfuls of food in town that can reduce the pizza lover or Italophile to stunned silence, to something close to tears. Bianco is constantly testing new flour blends, the grain milled at Pane Bianco for each trial. He has upped his tomato game with his own line. He tirelessly works to cultivate relationships with farmers. As a result, all he has to do when blazing pies is apply time-honed methods to pristine ingredients and let our West Coast bounty shine.

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