This story was originally published on April 10, 2019.
Last Tuesday night, Tratto served an epic meal. Rome-based writer Katie Parla was in town to promote her new book, The Food of the Italian South, and Chris Bianco, Cassie Shortino, and Blaise Faber pulled out all the stops. It wasn’t so much that it was a meal that dazzled you in its intensity of flavor. It was more about soul and style: tapping into the essence of both the marginal places of a marginalized region (Italy’s south) and our upper Sonoran early spring (frittata with tiny yellow flowers, a dessert of tangelos, and the year’s first local strawberries, minted and iced).
It was the kind of meal that zipped you to a faraway place. It was the kind of meal that tinkered with your emotions as much as your taste buds. It was the kind of highly regional, tightly intentional Italian meal rare in Phoenix. It got me thinking about Italian food here in general, about the places I go, other than my kitchen, when I crave some.
One of the secrets about eating in Italy is that most food in the touristed cities 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 that 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, in San Francisco, in Phoenix.
When I meet people and tell them what I do, they tend to ask me where to eat. When they find out that I’ve worked in mountain vineyards in Emilia Romagna, have great-great grandparents from southern Italy, and fuel a love for the geometry of pasta, they seem to get extra jazzed when asking for favorites. Well, here they are.
Tratto has the most interesting pasta in town, and probably the best. It has the universe of Italian noodles most worth visiting and revisiting as it shifts to track 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, orechiette, and spaghetti alla chittara, the latter cut the old way — yellow sheets pressed onto taut, guitar-like strings.
There are a number of spots. I’m going to recommend one that hews closer to an Italian sandwich than an Italian-inspired sandwich. At Forno 301, panino bread is cooked to order with the same dough used for pizza. It puffs up and expands into soft rolls, and pulled out of the oven before the crust can develop. They remain white and spongy, with none of the brown, nutty flavors that long heat produces. The panino of just mozzarella, prosciutto, and a little oil is simple but nearly perfect.
For something under the radar, consider the porchetta at the Old Town Scottsdale Farmers' Market. Josh Hebert of Hot Noodles, Cold Sake is the man behind this classic sandwich. Hebert slides his knife though pork belly stuffed with traditional flavorings like rosemary and fennel seeds, freeing slabs from a meaty rolled tube. The crisp-edged rounds go on Noble Bread sourdough. No toppings. No sauce. Just a few ladlefuls of hot drippings leftover from the slow roast.
For crudo, raw Italian-style seafood, Bar Pesce is the spot. Bar Pesce is the new version of Crudo, the Arcadia restaurant that specialized in its namesake for six years (before rebooting). A swordfish crudo makes a case for raw over cooked fish even in the European gastronomic tradition. It's far removed from sashimi and ceviche, though this crudo makes use of leche de tigre, a flashbang chile-and-citrus-based condiment from Peru. On the coast of Puglia, a region in Italy’s south, you can eat uni raw right on the docks. Bar Pesce can summon that seaside lightning.
For cooked seafood, Pa’La is great, though 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, tracks the pelagic seasons. One night, you may get octopus roasted in the wood-fired oven. Another night, maybe it’s the widespread seafood stew brodetto with calamari, mussels, and spicy sausage.
Beyond aperitivo, the predinner hour of sipping liqueurs and eating snacks, Italy has never had a great cocktail culture. This has been changing, with some places evolving beyond spritz culture. For a next-level cocktail making use of Italian aperitivi and digestivi (collectively known as amari), Tratto is the place. Here, you can fall down a deep hole of bitter, rooty, liqueurs.
Another Italian-leaning bar program worth checking out is that of Fellow Osteria. There, you’ll find more than six kinds of Fernet, and an Amaro Montenegro cocktail with a jutting sprig of garden-snipped rosemary that leans by your nostrils.
For wine, check out Sauvage Bottle Shop in The Churchill. Offbeat producers. Funky varietals. Minimal use of sulfites. And no, the Italian craft beer boom hasn’t made its way to Phoenix.
PASTRIES AND SWEETS
Limited selection here. Andreoli Italian Grocer does a nice sfogliatella, ribbed with tight folds and snowed with powdered sugar. (Though not a pastry, the house-made bricks of torrone, a chewy white almond nougat, are well worth their expense.)
More like an Italian pasticceria is The Sicilian Baker, opened in March. This place is one of the few tightly focused regional Italian eateries in the area. The pastries are solid and may scratch an itch, 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.
ROC2 in Cave Creek roasts the best coffee beans in the Valley. The roastery, a tiny factory off the town’s main drag, isn’t open to the public. But if you show up to buy a bag of beans on a day that owner Dave Anderson is home from his scouting expeditions to coffee plantations in South America and beyond, and if you show interest, he may invite you in.
He has a few Matrix-worthy, chromed-out machines that he can program to his madcap specifications, calculated right on down to moisture content.
Metro Phoenix, being a hot place, has a wealth of gelato options. Two of my favorites are in Old Town Scottsdale. One, Cool Italiano Gelato, churns an intense pistachio flavor. It’s chalky and the color of matcha tea, compact and creamy, bursting with flavor that seems to keep intensifying the longer you keep your mind on it as it melts on your tongue. The pistachio flavor here costs more than all the gelateria’s others to account for the cost of making the flavor from 100 percent pistachios from Bronte, Sicily. (Most desserts labeled “pistachio” are actually cut with some almond.)
Though having just talked smack on almonds, let me suggest some: the almond-and-orange flavor at Gelato Cimmino. The orange in this one is spellbinding, lacking acidity and bite, tasting more like perfume-bomb candied citrus that studs the ends of Sicilian-style cannoli (which you can find far from Sicily). This gelateria uses the gelato of Naples as its guiding light and yardstick, sourcing many of its ingredients from Campania — the region home to Napoli.
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GROCERIES, SUPPLIES, VEGETABLES
Your local farmers market is where Italian-style cooking, being all about the vegetable, begins. There are brick-and-mortar markets where you can score specialty foods to combine with our 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.
I’ll stop into Andreoli’s to see what’s hanging out in the front case and on the shelves, and maybe leave with San Danielle prosciutto or rosamarina — the latter one of the Italian south’s oil-suspended blends of hot peppers and tiny fish. But generally, when I want specialty items like squid ink or a gnocchi board, I get them from the internet.
That said, you can find some great local products for Italian cooking here. Bianco DiNapoli tomatoes rival San Marzano. Local flour is fresher than 00 milled in Italy. The citrus here is as good as any you can get there, and so, too — sorry, Bronte — are the great Arizonan pistachios. Plug these into the right formula, like some of those Parla has trawled from deep in the Italian heartland, and you, too, may find your favorite place for Italian is your own kitchen.