For years, Phoenicians drove from all parts of town to a run-down strip mall in Tempe to get wood-fired pies at a little spot called Classic Italian Pizza, known far and wide as one of the best pizzerias in the Valley. Last year, the restaurant moved to a better strip mall (neighbors include Changing Hands Bookstore and Trader Joe's), but it sadly has reemerged as just another neighborhood spot with pretty good pizza.
Began's Classic Italian Pizza, slightly renamed, is a one-room pizza parlor with a bistro feel. Chalkboards pepper the walls proclaiming daily specials and wine lists, and the long bar is bookended by a handful of low tables near the entrance and a beautiful wood-fired oven at the back of the restaurant. A small patio has been added out front, and though it has been dressed up with the same globe string lights as the interior, there is no hiding the fact that it overlooks a parking lot.
Nevertheless, if you came for a cocktail and good conversation, you won't be disappointed. Though chef and owner Azhar Began was born in Bosnia (his family fled to Italy in 1991 at the height of the Bosnian War), he clearly has picked up more Italian traits than just his love of food. He treats his staff as if they were his own family, and they in turn treat their customers like guests in their own house. Began has been known to host World Cup parties at the restaurant or stick a thumb drive of photos from his recent trip to Italy in the television at the bar so he can tell his patrons all about it. Perhaps that's why the restaurant has such a loyal following on Facebook (over 1,000 strong).
Or perhaps it's the Moscow Mule. The full bar at Began's is completely undersold; there is no cocktail menu and there's only a small chalkboard (among many) indicating that happy hour is from 2 to 5 p.m. daily. Unfortunate, because if the rest of the drinks are anything like the Moscow Mule — not too sweet, with a perfect ginger beer — you would be well-advised to spend time at the bar before moving on to dinner.
Began shows the same attention to detail with his wines. In addition to the Malbec, Montepulciano, and Riesling that you probably would expect, came a Slovenian Refošk, a Spanish Tempranillo, and a Grüner Veltliner from Austria that you certainly would not. A self-confessed wine geek, he thoughtfully identifies his favorite bottles with an "Azhar's Picks" notation, further making his customers feel at ease. Unfortunately, Began's obvious love for his craft doesn't always translate to the food, and the result is a menu that is equally full of hits and misses.
The appetizers show promise. Mac 'n' cheese came in two varieties: shrimp, Danish blue cheese, and Irish butter as well as house sausage, mozzarella, and Parmesan. The former was delightful; the combination of the blue cheese and quality butter gave the dish — quaintly served in a ceramic crock bowl with a handle — a rich, perfectly salted flavor. That same saltiness could be found in the French onion soup, though perhaps to a fault. The soup also featured a nice, nutty Parmesan and the restaurant's wood-fired bread.
Speaking of which, the wood-fired oven is clearly a point of pride at Began's.
"It's not just a trend," Began says. "People are understanding that it is the only way to make classic Italian pizza . . . If you want something authentic, you can't cut corners."
The pizza landscape in Phoenix has changed significantly since he landed here 11 years ago, he says. Where there used to be just a handful of wood-fired ovens, there are more like 40 or 50 now, he estimates. To highlight the oven's significance, the appetizer menu featured a basket of bread rolls, served with a plate of housemade marinara sauce for dipping, for a whopping $8. Though the marinara was great, the lackluster dough means that the restaurant's bread simply serves as a vehicle for its toppings. Wood-fired or not, the bread at Began's has no stand-alone flavor to enhance the pizza experience and certainly not enough to merit a price of $8 for a basket of it.
The pizza menu itself is good, if a little overpriced. Italian classics are indeed there: a diavola for $17, a Four Seasons and a capricciosa, each $18. Both the Hatch chile and the Italian sausage (each $16) feature Began's own pork sausage. In this case, the meat lived up to the housemade hype: Finely shaved and a little sweet, it was a delicate, flavorful addition to the pizza. Too bad it turned out to be the only flavor on the Hatch chile pizza, despite the generous serving of the New Mexico green chiles on top.
For a restaurant with "pizza" in the name, I want pies with more punch. The crust, though it has a nice texture, is the major culprit. On my visits, there was a sweetness in the dough that distracted from the rich marinara and cheese, confusing the taste buds instead of celebrating the toppings. And the toppings themselves were limp and tired — overcooked vegetables lost their crunch and inherent flavor, blending in with the other toppings to create one bland taste. Incidentally, a simple white pizza — the garlic and basil — was a direct hit. It allowed Began's house-pulled mozzarella to shine, and the $11 price seemed fair on a menu that otherwise did not.
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Another must-have? The perfectly spiced, creamy cannoli, which took us by pleasant surprise after a sad tiramisu. The must-miss list includes an overcooked and overly salty prosciutto and asparagus, and a pile of arugula masquerading as a salad.
If you don't return for the pizza, you should come back for a chat with Began. His dedication to his craft is the real deal; it is perhaps that passion that has kept him afloat over the years in such a competitive market. Unfortunately, in a town where pizza lovers are spoiled for choice, that enthusiasm alone is not enough to keep Began's Classic Italian Pizza at the head of the class.
Began's Classic Italian Pizza
6434 South McClintock Drive, Tempe
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday
Mac 'n' cheese (shrimp) $10
Prosciutto and asparagus $10
Arugula salad $9