One of the open secrets about eating in Italy is this: The food in the touristed cities often isn’t great. If you’re walking Centro Storico in Rome and pick a dinner spot at random, chances are it’s going to be underwhelming, even if you have a hard time admitting it to yourself. Or underwhelming relative to the top-end places to eat in the city and nearby country.
It’s a similar story in New York, San Francisco, and in Phoenix.
People like to ask me where I go in greater Phoenix for Italian food. They are especially curious if I've shared some of my connections to Italy (once worked on farms and vineyards there, first met my wife in Rome, have great-grandparents from the Italian south and Sicily ... ). So here are the places, other than my kitchen, I like to go locally.
Tratto makes the best pasta in town. Offerings shift with the micro seasons, a spinning wheel of shapes and sauces. As the year moves, you may run into bluebeard durum tagliatelle al limone — in lemon cream sauce. You may catch a bowl of guinea fowl ragú. You may see fresh pasta shapes like fileja, orecchiette, and spaghetti alla chitarra. A simple, off-menu, truly flawless version of cacio e pepe secretly anchors throughout the calendar.
After Tratto, Virtù Honest Craft, Saint Pasta, and Mora Italian are all good spots for pasta. Virtú brings the most progressive option, playing cards like mesquite flour gnocchi and bucatini with red wine and goose egg. Saint Pasta (currently pop-up only) cooks in a New Jersey Italian style (see: vodka sauce) but can nail Italy-Italian classics (al limone, carbonara), usually with a Jersey accent.
If you're looking to buy fresh pasta, Sonoran Pasta Co. extrudes a nice array of shapes using traditional bronze dyes and local grains with integrity, like purple barley, farro, and white Sonora wheat. Pasta Rea is a good bet for fresh noodles made from more traditional flours.
Note: Because of COVID, Tratto is temporarily closed, but some of its dishes are being cooked next door at Pizzeria Bianco's Town & Country location. Mora is closed until fall, also due to the pandemic.
Andreoli Italian Grocer mirrors the prevailing sandwich philosophy on the boot. Just a few simple ingredients, often two or three, and generally light. This calculus only works if all the ingredients are high quality. If you get Andreoli after noon, many sandwiches come on pleasantly crisp newborn focaccia. The tomato and eggplant is excellent. So are other sandwiches that loop in finocchiona, speck, and other Italian salumi.
At Forno 301, panino bread is cooked with the same dough used for pizza. It puffs into soft rolls, yanked from the oven before the crust darkens. They remain white and spongy, free of toasty flavors long heat engenders. The panino of just mozzarella, prosciutto, and olive oil is simple but stellar.
If you want to go more maximal and East Coast Italian American, Niccoli's Italian Grocery & Deli might scratch that itch. Pull the trigger on upgrading sausage-and-peppers with a Parm treatment.
For cooked seafood, you can't do better than Pa’La. The catch is you never quite know what the ever-rotating options will be unless you have a quick Instagram finger. They are usually riffed from whatever Nelson’s Meat + Fish is sourcing. This is a place that, though modest in size, closely tracks the pelagic seasons. One night, you may get octopus roasted in the wood-fired oven. Another, maybe it’s the seafood stew brodetto with calamari, mussels, and spicy sausage.
If you're looking for seafood to make crudo or cooked meals, both Nelson's and Chula Seafood offer fresh options newly lifted from the water.
Beyond neon aperitivo spritzes and outliers like the negroni, Italy isn't known for cocktails. In recent years, this has changed across the ocean and at a few top Italian restaurants in the Valley. For a next-level cocktail experience that unites house liqueurs, vermouth, amari, and so on, Tratto is the place. Here, too, you can fall as deep as you want into a beautiful hole of bitter, rooty, esoteric aperitivi and digestivi.
Fellow Osteria is another standout. There, you’ll find many Fernets and cocktails like an Amaro Montenegro tipple with a jutting sprig of garden-snipped rosemary that leans to your nostrils. Virtú Honest Craft has an underrated cocktail program, plus amaro flights.
For wine, check out Sauvage Bottle Shop in The Churchill. Offbeat producers. Funky varietals. Minimal use of sulfites. A recent favorite has been the wines of Puglian vintner Valentina Passalacqua. So far, the Italian craft beer boom hasn’t really spread to Phoenix.
Andreoli Italian Grocer does a nice sfogliatella, ribbed with tight folds and snowed with powdered sugar. Also, house-made bricks of torrone, a chewy almond nougat, are well worth their expense.
For some bakery options that straddle the Italy-East Coast tradition, visit Niccoli's (don't miss the biscotti) or Romanelli's Italian Deli (try the pignoli cookies, chocolate-dipped cannoli, and lobster tails, meaning sfogliatelle with sweet cream). In the west Valley, Sun City's New York West Pastry & Bake Shop holds it down.
The Sicilian Baker is more like an Italian pasticceria. This spot is one of the few tightly focused regional Italian eateries in the Valley. The pastries are solid, though they go light on candied fruit that makes Sicilian pastries the best in Italy. Grab a few sfinci — tennis-ball-sized doughnuts filled with sweet ricotta cream. The bakery also sells small and large format cassate — soft sponge cakes armored in marzipan and topped with candied fruit.
Metro Phoenix has a wealth of gelato options. Cool Italiano Gelato churns an intense pistachio flavor. It’s chalky and the color of matcha tea, compact and creamy, bursting with intensity. Another of the best gelato flavors in town is almond-and-orange from Gelato Cimmino. This gelateria uses those of Naples as its model, sourcing many inputs from Campania — the region home to Napoli. Both are in Old Town Scottsdale.
Lately, I've been seriously digging That's Amore in north Scottsdale. This nook scoops impressive classics like stracciatella and bacio, not to mention some galvanizing modern flavors, like whiskey cream.
Your local farmers market is where Italian-style cooking, being vegetable-centric, begins. There are brick-and-mortar markets where you can score specialty foods to combine with your market abundance, and there are some to be avoided (red flag: big American brands).
If you go the local specialty shop route, be prepared to pay.
Romanelli's, Niccoli's, DeFalco's Italian Deli & Grocery, and similar catch-all groceries tend to carry highly specialized products, like preserved wild cherries, Sicilian oregano, tinned fish, regional olive oils, and aisles of canned tomatoes.
When I order meals from Andreoli's, I'll generally throw in a few random groceries, like guanciale, their house-made burrata, or rosamarina — the latter one of the Italian south’s oil-packed blends of hot peppers and tiny fish. Anything absent from the Valley can be trawled from the internet (see: Gustiamo).
That said, you can find some next-level local products for Italian cooking here. Bianco DiNapoli tomatoes rival San Marzano, Italy's most famous. Local flour is fresher than 00 milled in Italy. The citrus here is as good as any there, and so are our pistachios. Italian eating means local ingredients raised well and minimally treated. Get them and do that, and you'll have first-rate Italian meal right in Arizona.
Editor's note: This story was originally published on April 10, 2019. It was updated on August 3, 2020. See what Valley restaurants are offering takeout, delivery, and dine-in services. Find Italian restaurants and many more Phoenix-area eateries in our Phoenix Restaurant Directory.