The first time I met Joe Aiello, he was singing.
It was about four years ago at Aiello's on Central Avenue, the namesake Italian restaurant he owned with wife Myrah for nearly five years until the restaurant shuttered in early June. I was having dinner with my husband and some friends of ours from Boston when, out of the blue, a large man with a headful of snow-white hair broke into an Italian song in a beautiful baritone voice in the middle of the restaurant. The din of the busy Italian eatery ceased at once — pasta-filled forks were suspended in mid-air, conversations abruptly halted, even the wine seemed to stop mid-pour. When it was over, the room broke out in applause.
"Now that's an Italian restaurant," my friend leaned over to me and said, clapping and grinning from ear to ear.
Thankfully, the Aiellos plan to reopen the restaurant this fall farther south on Central. In the interim, the ex-Manhattanite husband-and-wife team seem to be positioning themselves to conquer yet another community — Moon Valley — and this area of north Central Phoenix could sure use them. With dining options scant at best, many residents make the 20-minute drive to Kierland when searching for a place to eat. The Aiellos are hoping to change that with not one, but three new venues in a strip mall on the southeastern corner of Thunderbird Road and Seventh Street. The first is Aiello's Salumeria, which opened early this year; the second, Isa's Pizza, which opened in April; and finally, an American burger joint called Charr, which opened in mid-June. (You can read my First Taste of Charr.)
Some have referred to Aiello's Salumeria simply as a "mini-Aiello's," but this casual spot may be described more accurately as a counter-service eatery and deli with the same family-friendly customer service its parent restaurant had been known for. And with enough affordable Italian-American dishes — in the form of starters, salads, sandwiches, and pasta from its eat-in or take-out menu — popping in frequently seems like a no-brainer.
The space is small, but its high ceiling and many windows keep its contemporary interior as open as possible. There is a counter and a few wooden tables scattered about for those who wish to dine in; and refrigerated cases displaying Italian meats, cheeses, marinated mushrooms, potato croquettes, and housemade desserts are often perused by those waiting for to-go orders.
You could start with such antipasti as light and crispy calamari accompanied by a tomato dipping sauce flecked with chili pepper flakes for a bit of heat, giant battered and stuffed artichoke hearts coated in a scrumptious creamy cheese sauce, or a hunk of woozy baked eggplant rolatini, lightly breaded, loaded with melted ricotta, and slathered with a slightly sweet marinara (the Aiellos use only San Marzano tomatoes, and Myrah has cautioned customers not to bring up the subject of California tomatoes with Joe). Softball-size orbs of fried, then baked, aracini (rice balls coated in breadcrumbs and filled with meat sauce, olives, and peas) are big enough to share and come topped with mozzarella and pomodoro sauce, but unfortunately, too much rice obliterates the flavors of the ingredients inside.
Next, try one of Aiello's stellar hero sandwiches, featuring golden toasted bread and served with a fresh side salad of mixed greens, tomatoes, red onions, and shaved Parmesan. The veal parmigiana, delicate and tender with a thin, melt-in-your-mouth coating, leads the pack, followed by a delectable meatball parm featuring wonderfully seasoned orbs made of ground pork and veal draped in melted cheese and marinara sauce. And a won't-go-hungry cold sandwich called the Aiello's House Salumeria comes deliciously packed with prosciutto, soppressata, provolone, roasted peppers, mozzarella, artichokes, and tomatoes in an Italian dressing. Unfortunately, my grilled chicken, eggplant, and fontina hero was served sans the promised zucchini and roasted peppers, resulting in missed flavors and a visual appearance desperately in need of color.
For a salad that is as robust as the sandwiches, there's Aiello's amazing Antipasto. Chock-full of Italian meats, cheeses, artichokes, roasted peppers, grilled veggies, and housemade jardiniére, this fresh and filling garden of delights arrives spilling out over its colorful bowl. Lettuce-heavy? Hardly. Less brawny is the Italian spinach salad featuring mushrooms, pancetta, red onion, and a hard-boiled egg tossed with warm balsamic dressing — on my visit, too much warm balsamic dressing.
Many of the more noteworthy main ingredients in the sandwiches (veal, chicken, and meatball parmigiana) transfer well when paired with pasta, and accompanying thick slices of freshly baked focaccia bread do the trick when it comes to sopping up what's left in the bowl. You've probably had better linguini fradiavolo and Bolognese sauce, but there is a highly satisfying rigatoni with earthy wild mushrooms in a light cream sauce and a pleasing note of hot peppers. Curiously, my otherwise delicious fettuccini with grilled chicken in a pink vodka sauce with roasted peppers and tomatoes experienced a rather severe technical difficulty: It was served without the chicken.
And for a sweet ending, Aiello's offers several homemade Italian desserts to choose from. A very good tiramisu, light and creamy, fared better than a Lobster Tail, or sfogliatelle, which was filled with sweet ricotta. Sadly, it tasted as if it had been sitting out for too long.
With a separate outdoor entrance but sharing the Salumeria space inside is Isa's Pizza, the New York-style pizza joint whose moniker comes from the Aiellos' daughter, Isabelle. Like the popular pies once served at Aiello's Back Door, the takeout-only pizzeria operated from the back of the original restaurant, the casual Isa's features signature Neapolitan and Sicilian-style creations ordered up at the counter, as whole pies or by the generously sized slice, and for dine-in or to-go.
Only open a few months, Isa's noteworthy pizzas, cheery atmosphere, and hey-how-ya-doin' service are so inviting and familiar, it's as if this neighborhood joint had been waiting for you to pop in all along.
The pizza crust is nothing short of stellar — a little crispy, slightly chewy, and wonderfully soft at the edges. And with homemade mozzarella, signature sauces, and fresh ingredients, it's hard to go wrong with any of the selections.
Standouts include Nana's Pie with housemade mozzarella, basil, and a zingy sweet plum tomato sauce; a thick and pillow-y Sicilian-style slice, fresh from the oven and draped with gooey cheese, red sauce, and spicy pepperoni; and an exceptional spinach Alfredo. If you're not a fan of spinach on pizza, one taste of this luscious and creamy creation with flavorful, fresh spinach in every bite will make you a believer.
There's also a satisfying stromboli with a golden brown, slightly salty crust packed with pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms, peppers, onions, and mozzarella, accompanied by an equally flavorful tomato sauce for dippin'. At seven bucks, it was a steal — plus, I had leftovers.
If you'd rather see the pizza magic happen instead of waiting for your pie at one of Isa's checkered-table-clothed tables in its small dining room, there's a counter area from which to watch. There, an affable, multi-tasking pizza chef can be observed doing some serious dough-tossing and kneading, barking requests to the kitchen or counter gal, and singing along to the '60s rock tunes playing overhead.
And because Isa's connects to Aiello's Salumeria, those in the know can have the best of both worlds with a slice and a salad — or any combination, really — and have a seat in either side.
As it was at their original restaurant, Joe and Myrah Aiello frequently can be seen at their new endeavors, chatting with customers and helping the friendly staff.
With any luck, I'll hear Joe singing again soon.