In the dark first summer of the pandemic, Chris Bianco took to social media to post inspirational messages and videos. He adapted, rolling out a New York-style pie, relocating Tratto and Bar Bianco, releasing a late-night menu, adjusting again and again and again. Sous chefs and other important cooks in the Bianco micro empire left for new pursuits. Somehow, despite the turnover of key players, quality hasn't yielded an inch. Pizzeria Bianco still churns out its legendary pizza and even stunning chicken cacciatore and other specials. Pane Bianco remains a sandwich and Sicilian pizza utopia. Tratto still plates pasta at least one tier above any other Italian joint in town. Most importantly, Bianco has remained a kind leader through it all.
By some measures, Rene Andrade isn't a new chef. He has cooked at big-name restaurants up and down the Valley. Recently, he oversaw the kitchens at Ghost Ranch and the now-closed Tempe Public Market Café. Now, after a mid-pandemic move, Andrade has become an executive chef with a restaurant his way channeling his past and his experiences. This and the wonder of eating at Bacanora feel totally new. Sure, he has had help from friends and family at Bacanora, which has already become one of the most exciting and soulful places to eat in town. For Bacanora and the future that now awaits following this young chef's career change, Andrade is Phoenix's best new chef.
Earlier this year, the James Beard Foundation Women of Arizona, a movement that includes 15 female chefs, launched a series of takeout tasting menus across metro Phoenix. Each menu offered a starter, main course, and dessert — a three-course menu from three local chefs, packaging different local restaurant offerings into one meal. Participating restaurants and their respective chefs (and owners) included FnB and Charleen Badman; Songbird Coffee House and Erin Westgate; Maya's Cajun Kitchen and Maya Bartlett; 24 Carrots and Sasha Raj; Lori Hassler of The Farish House; Lori Hashimoto of Hana Japanese Eatery; Jennifer Caraway, founder of The Joy Bus; The Breadfruit & Rum Bar's Danielle Leoni, and more — making it one of the most complete who's-who collaborations of female chefs in the Valley ... maybe ever. The group was encouraged by the national group Let's Talk, part of the James Beard Foundation Women's Leadership Program, and they still have lots more to do. We'll be watching — and eating.
Chef Danielle Leoni is a James Beard Award-nominated chef and a pillar of sustainable restauranting in Arizona — dare we say the country. Here's a quick resume: She holds an Executive Master of Sustainability Leadership from ASU, the James Beard Foundation awarded her a "Seafood Sustainability Seal," and she's a member of the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch Blue-Ribbon Task Force. But none of that mattered when COVID hit. Within weeks, she shuttered her restaurant, The Breadfruit & Rum Bar, penned an open letter to Governor Doug Ducey on behalf of local eateries, and started the Arizona Small Restaurant Coalition. Yet her pandemic work was just getting started. Since then, Leoni and her Breadfruit team have delivered high-quality, locally sourced Jamaican food to A New Leaf and Roosevelt Community Church to feed families experiencing homelessness. She has joined the James Beard Foundation Women of Arizona alliance to promote female-owned restaurants in the Valley. And, during one of the most memorable election days in history, Leoni was part of Chefs for the Polls — a nonpartisan effort initiated by World Central Kitchen that fed voters (for free) at the Camelback Center on November 3.
During the pandemic, Scottsdale Community College faculty member Danielle Carlock got up to some interesting work. Carlock's sabbatical project was meant to address food insecurity for students through a farmers' market-style event at SCC, where Carlock would distribute free vegetables and edible plants from the campus food garden. But when SCC shut down due to COVID, she instead expanded the other part of the project: the free Maricopa Native Seed Library, which focuses on native plants — ecologically specific to Maricopa County — and seeds that aren't readily available at Valley nurseries (many of which Carlock herself collected in the field). These native seeds are free to students, faculty, and the public. They come in packets of 20 or so, which can be picked up or mailed. Food plant seeds include kale, lettuce, firecracker penstemon, white Sonora wheat, Salt River Pima pea, and desert chia. And now, Mesa Community College's Red Mountain campus is home to many of the parent plants, making it something of a showroom for the seed library.
Co-founded by former Phoenix Mercury player Bridget Pettis, nonprofit urban farming organization Project Roots AZ grows fresh fruits, herbs, and vegetables on land at the Spaces of Opportunity garden in Phoenix and the Local First Community Garden in Mesa. In addition to providing plots for people to farm their own food, the founders and staff of Project Roots AZ make community education a huge part of their activities, offering garden boxes for people to grow their own food on their patios or balconies, conducting gardening and yoga classes, making produce box deliveries, and running a soup kitchen out of their Mesa space. Project Roots AZ's garden bounties can also be found at the Downtown Phoenix Farmers Market.
Old-school Phoenix foodies might remember the original Christopher's Restaurant & Crush Lounge, the beloved eatery and bar manned by the James Beard Award-winning Chef Christopher Gross. It was located at Biltmore Fashion Park for a decade till Gross relocated to Wrigley Mansion to run Geordie's in 2018. (There was also a brief Sky Harbor satellite location, Christopher's, in 2019). But as of this spring, Gross opened a new restaurant: Christopher's at Wrigley Mansion. The eight-course tasting menu spotlights seasonal ingredients from a prix-fixe menu at $250 per person, as well as Christopher's Classic, a lighter tasting menu served at lunch. The 26-seat, 1,500-square-foot space, sitting right next to the mansion, was designed by architect Wendell Burnett, and boasts 180-degree views via floor-to-ceiling windows and a retractable roof. It's quite an experience, if you can swing it.
We live in an age when so many restaurants just pretend to offer tapas. Pa'La Downtown is the real thing — a creative, Italian-leaning, Japanese-accented, unbelievably interesting restaurant where the only move is to roll up with friends, order a host of small dishes, and split them all. Sure, you could come for an excellent Neapolitan-esque pizza whose crust Claudio Urciuoli has laboriously blended from many kinds of flour and blazed in a tiled, wood-fired oven. Sure, you could come for a sandwich, maybe impeccably sourced tuna on the headiest, airiest focaccia in the Valley. But to experience the full Italy-meets-Japan project of Pa'La 2.0, go small or go home. Jason Alford and Urciuoli plate inventive crudi, beef tataki, scallops with apple miso, anchovy-funked New York strip spiedini, squid and fregola, octopus and yuzu, burrata and tomatoes ... the list goes forever on, changing with the seasons, high-end imports, and chefs' imaginations.
Instrumental Hospitality's Southeast Asian-inspired restaurant in Melrose hits best when you're planted at the dark bar and a drink is plunked before you. The food at Belly can sing. Crab banh xeo has all the sea-sweet notes of the crustacean and the crisp goodness of the rice-flour crepe. Braised pork belly in a clay pot is richer than a pharaoh. Riffs on Southeast Asian tradition tend to be solid. Still, drinks kick up the experience several notches. Cocktails lean strongly tropical and bright: mezcal and rhum agricole, citrus, makrut lime leaf, intense aromatics. Try the Spicy Hydra, a margarita relative with pineapple and a tamarind salt rim, or the Because I Got High, which goes huge with mezcal, green chartreuse, matcha syrup, and coconut.
The photos on Durant's website are misleading: Durant's is dark. Really dark, like you need to wait for your eyes to adjust a bit dark. It adds a certain amount of flair and intrigue to your dining experience, as does the way you enter the restaurant through the back door. Once you're inside, you can sit down and squint at the menu, which is composed of pricey-but-worth-it steakhouse classics like filet mignon, strip steak, and grilled scallops in herb cream sauce. Whatever you choose, don't rush your meal; the food and the atmosphere invite you to linger in a subtle, classy dining room where you don't have to see clearly to enjoy what's on your plate.