When a new spot opens in town, we can't wait to check it out — and let you know our initial impressions, share a few photos, and dish about some menu items. First Taste, as the name implies, is not a full-blown review, but instead a peek inside restaurants that have just opened, sampling a few items, and satisfying curiosities (yours and ours).
Location: 200 E. 5th St., Tempe
Open: About two weeks
Eats: Wood-fired Italian
Tempe — and specifically, the few blocks around the northeast corner of the Arizona State University campus — is some of the hottest restaurant real estate in the Valley right now. In the past few months, the area's seen big openings from Nocawich, the first freestanding sandwich-focused restaurant from Valley restaurateur Eliot Wexler, and now Citrine, the second Italian restaurant from chef Peter DeRuvo and owner Nick Neuman, also the duo behind Evo in Scottsdale.
Citrine, located in the same building as the Tempe Transit Center, takes over the space briefly occupied by fast-casual pizza spot Revo. As such, the restaurant doesn't currently have a hood, leaving DeRuvo to rely on not much more than a wood-fired oven. The good news is that DeRuvo's a creative and talented Italian chef who offers diners a menu that by no means feels constrained by the hoodless kitchen.
We stopped in for lunch, during which diners can order starters, salads, and sandwiches. You'll find some expected options, including the burrata-tomatoes-and-balsamic combination, a chopped salad, and a meatball sandwich, but even within a somewhat limited list, you'll find dishes that are both exciting and satisfying.
On our visit, unfortunately, the chef's daily bruschetta ($9) wasn't one of them. Our order included four pieces of toasted Noble Bread topped with cheese, sliced mortadella, and asparagus. The salty combination of cheese and meat made for nearly overwhelming bites, and the thinly sliced mortadella gave the dish a fancy lunch-meat feel.
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A pork belly panzanella salad ($13) fared much better. The untraditional take on the Tuscan salad lacked tomatoes but did offer hearty chunks of butternut squash and Brussels sprout petals dressed in a light maple cider vinaigrette. Pomegranate seeds and pepitas added a subtle crunch, while oversize Noble bread croutons kept the dish tied to its panzanella roots. The best bites easily were those that involved the crunchy cubes of pork belly. Crisp on the outside but soft and fatty inside, these pieces of prove pork belly isn't always just a gratuitous addition.
Our favorite plate of the three we tried was the smoked chicken salad sandwich ($11), an overstuffed creation loaded with chicken, sliced avocado, goat cheese, apricot, and pistachio. The smoky, moist chicken was clearly the star and delivered mouthfuls of delicate wood-smoked flavor.
The restaurant's décor is spare, though less so than the former resident's. A brick wall has been whitewashed, and the bar's been redone, but somehow the space still feels open in an empty way instead of airy and bright. The open kitchen also gives diners a clear view of the food being prepared — in our case, a view of the single chef working on preparing lunch for our table and the table of six diners next to us. Our wait was excessive (it was about an hour between sitting down and the first plate hitting our table), but understandable considering the lack of staff.
One thing's for sure: We'll be back to explore Citrine's dinner menu. With options like steamed mussels, 25-layer lasagna, and more, we're still interested to find out what DeRuvo's Citrine is all about.