We're lucky that Italian food reaches some of the heights it does here in metro Phoenix, in the Sonoran, in a state with no coasts or long history of Italian-American settlement. We are also lucky that the top Italian chefs in town know that Italian food is much more than pasta.
It is flaky, shell-shaped pastries stuffed with cream. It is cocktails made with ancient liqueurs crafted from 20-plus ingredients. It is simple, clean cooking that pays homage to the land, the animals, and the eater. In no particular order, here are the 10 best Italian restaurants in the Valley.
Mora Italian5651 North Seventh Street
The progressive Italian restaurant started by Scott Conant delivers more than you would expect from a spot with a famous chef. The burrata is a must-order with bagna cauda with pear mostarda, almonds, and crustini. If you're ever in for the sugar snap and snow pea rendition, pull the trigger at Mora Italian. Pastas, crafted using an extruder, are among the town's elite. Torchio twist gradually and sing a beautiful, deeply meaty, and mushroomy tune. The Gnudi with guanciale and lobster is on another level. Dessert is right up there with the rest. That budino will steamroll you with every last ornate spoonful.
Tratto4743 North 20th Street
At this white-and-wood trattoria, Chris Bianco's philosophy — maximal ingredients fussed over minimally, with clean technique — extends beyond pizza and sandwiches to a wide range of Italian-inspired foods. That may mean a chickpea fritter at Tratto. That may mean simply roasted eggplant with tomato, basil, and good olive oil. And if you order right, that will mean at least one pasta, made here using 100 percent bluebeard durum. Tagliatelle with lemon and garganelli with duck ragu are some of the offerings you can expect to see as this menu shifts in lockstep with the micro desert seasons. That's how Bianco and chef de cuisine Cassie Shortino roll, and that's Italian the way Italian has been cooked for centuries.
Virtú Honest Craft3701 North Marshall Way, Scottsdale
Virtú Honest Craft might be the most underrated restaurant on the list. Chef Gio Osso's Italian cooking is kilometers from the same-old Italian starters, pastas, and mains that you see again and again. Osso grew up between New Jersey and Calabria, Italy, where he has some extended family. Southern Italian ingredients flash through: tiny scarlet Calabrian chiles and rare vegetables like barba di frate. Osso's food is huge on flavor. Pork ragu seems impossibly concentrated, and how the hell is that polenta so creamy? Aioli and chile heat lace a strikingly beautiful octopus dish. Eating here, you are reminded of how simultaneously homey but elegant Italian food can be.
Tomaso's3225 East Camelback Road
Tomaso Maggiore has established his position in the Valley's restaurant hierarchy thanks to more than 35 years in pasta business and, more importantly, some delicious high-end Italian fare. At Tomaso's, restaurant-style indulgence is the name of the game. Some pastas keep things simple and classic: linguine with clams and spaghetti cacio e pepe. But then there are pastas in cream sauce with truffles, pastas with filet mignon and veal Bolognese. Though the menu changes with the seasons, that's not to say that patrons will be left wanting on any given night at this Phoenix restaurant. Some satisfying bets are the Roman-style veal saltimbocca and Pollo alla Milanese.
1455 North Scottsdale Road, #100, Scottsdale
Two veterans of new-age Asian went Mediterranean when two owners of The Clever Koi opened Fellow Osteria in Scottsdale. Fellow’s best dishes channel an Italian ethos: great ingredients, minimal technique to ease out the best of those ingredients in combination with one another, finito. The Swiss chard ravioli serves as evidence of the kind of simple, elegant Italian cooking Fellow can nail. And on Fellow’s posh patio, you’ll catch glimpses of Arizona State University’s SkySong campus as well as the begonias your server may hand you to eat at the end of your meal.
Avanti Restaurant of Distinction2728 East Thomas Road
If you're looking for old-school Italian — okay, make that a 1980s hybrid of Italian and Italian-American — Avanti is a culinary blast from the past. The restaurant, with its black-and-white color scheme, features neon lights, a live piano bar, and enough celebrity photos on the wall to attest to its heyday. But appearances can be deceiving, and though the décor may be outdated, the flavors in the restaurant's long-enjoyed dishes are not. Avanti keeps it a little more on traditional American-Italian side with staples like spaghetti and meatballs, fettuccine alfredo, chicken parm, and meat or veggie lasagne.
Andreoli Italian Grocer8880 East Vía Linda Road, Scottsdale
Andreoli Italian is grocery at its most gourmet. The deli-dining hybrid serves up house-made specials for lunch, dinner, and carry-out. Here, you can score pastry like sfogliatelle, fancy 00 flour, al taglio pizza, torrone, and all kinds of weird Italian canned fish. You can get your share of specialty groceries. You can sit down to a monster Florentine steak known as bistecca Fiorentina. A daily rotation of meaty entrees and hearty soups will tempt as well. The best thing, though, might just be the simply grilled squid.
Marcellino7114 East Stetson Drive, Scottsdale
When you want luxurious Italian food and impeccable service, or an ideal spot for a romantic or celebratory atmosphere, you may want to go to Marcellino. Chef Marcellino Verzino never fails to us impress us with his food and his attention to his guests; we see him greeting diners nearly every time we visit. And we can't get enough of the food, whether it's an appetizer like the grilled jumbo shrimp on a feta cheese croquette; entrees such as gnocchi in a creamy gorgonzola sauce, chicken breast layered with prosciutto and fontina; or classic Italian desserts like panna cotta and tiramisu.
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DeFalco's Italian Deli & Grocery2334 North Scottsdale Road, Suite A133, Scottsdale
DeFalco's may have made its fame from sandwiches on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, but that isn't to say dinner doesn't also do the Scottsdale corner restaurant and deli justice. For a casual night out, guests can order at the counter and eat in the cozy dining area situated in the back of the store. Our pasta favorites include the spaghetti and meatballs and the baked ziti served more creamy than cooked with a rich blend of cheeses and sausage. And those sandwiches are pretty solid, too.
Parma Italian Roots20831 North Scottsdale Road, #117, Scottsdale
It's been said, but at Parma Italian Roots, two divergent threads knot — progressive Italian cooking, and the calcified food traditions of a country with regions like that of Parma. Chef Chris Gentile opened the pasta place in summer 2018, and we call it a pasta place because although there are creative starters and entrees, pasta reigns within these walls. Recommendations go to the butternut squash agnolotti and pappardelle Bolognese. Parma also offers a great happy hour with half-off pizzas running daily from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m.
Editor's note: This story was originally published on January 27, 2014.