At the end of my first meal at Fellow Osteria, our young waitress brought my wife and I two petals of begonia — scarlet begonia, just like the Grateful Dead song. “Eat these,” she told us. I blinked once and placed a petal between my teeth. It ruptured like silk, releasing a flavor like crushed raspberry, a wild burst of tang.
Eating at Fellow Osteria can be like eating that flower.
Given the restaurant’s origins, this may be unexpected. Fellow comes from a duo known for black-bean pancakes, chicken-and-waffle “bao buns,” and pig-face dumplings. It comes from Joshua James and Nick Campisano, who, at their two locations of The Clever Koi, serve food cherry-picked from Asia and then YOLO-twisted. Just last year, the pair opened a sushi counter with a tight menu, uncommon restraint, and their usual top-notch cocktails, winning over food and beverage enthusiasts. Arguably, James and Campisano are more celebrated for drinks than food. But at Fellow, both can star.
In a cavernous room where the sound seems to vanish overhead, blond wood accents a sea of white and daylight pours in through floor-to-ceiling windows. They reveal the edifices of Arizona State University’s SkySong campus, curling around Fellow’s posh patio, and the strip of garden where begonias grow. Italy couldn’t feel more remote.
And yet, in flashes, Fellow pegs the country’s spirit.
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. Most American chefs who cook Italian fail to see how simple it should be until later in their careers. James and Campisano took a shortcut to understanding that Italian food is some 80 percent sourcing, and then stepping out of the way. The shortcut: Claudio Urciuoli of Pa’La.
Urciuoli, from Campania, treats ingredients of impeccable origin with veteran, brutal simplicity, bringing out the best in what he sources (also the best). Urciuoli consulted on Fellow, sharing culinary and supply-chain intelligence on everything from buffalo-milk mozzarella to pasta pans.
And so you see, at Fellow, orecchiette made from grano arso. Grano arso comes from the rural Italian region of Puglia. To make it, farmers set fire to their wheat fields. Once the blaze has cooled, kernels are culled from burnt stalks and milled into a smoky, nutty flour.
Fellow sources its grano arso orecchiette from Puglia. It is dry pasta, which is no worse than fresh pasta, only different and suited to separate purposes. Unfortunately, the nuances of this pasta are obscured under a heavy blanket of pureed potato, which, together with some Parmigiano-Reggiano, has the texture of slightly curdled ricotta. At times, Fellow departs from its guiding light: simplicity. But when it stays true, it can be a really enjoyable restaurant.
Another pasta, ravioli, serves as evidence of this, and of the kind of simple, elegant Italian cooking Fellow can nail. Lumpy ravioli are jammed with Swiss chard and ricotta cheese, pale green golf balls of filling whispering their color through thin dough and coming up to its right-angled edges. Sage imbues melted butter which imbues pasta which imbues your soul. These ravioli couldn’t be better.
Pizza, too, thrives in its simplicity. Sauce made from Bianco DiNapoli crushed tomatoes has the fruity echoes of marinara made in summer. The crust (made from dough cold-proofed for about 48 hours) and mozzarella (from the province of Bari, same greater region as grano arso) have the same dainty, slight quality of the sauce, making for a margherita with finesse and levity. Torn basil perfumes. So does Sicilian olive oil, bright fat to let the tomato express itself.
Basil, like begonia, comes from the garden just outside. From this plot, Fellow sources chives, basil, mint, rosemary, begonias (which go into a drink), and other plant life that changes with the seasons.
The best use of this garden may be in a drink — and not through taste but smell (which, then, sculpts taste). A bar shaped like a three-sided rectangle stands near the entrance. On it are seven bottles of Fernet liqueurs, crown in a lineup of common and obscure amari. A cocktail called Zenzero balances the smokescreen of a peated Scotch with ginger, lemon, passionfruit syrup, and the orange sweetness of Amaro Montenegro. Crushed ice mounded past the brim keeps the cocktail gelid as you sip, no sip better than the first, when you lower and get a sharp blast of garden rosemary.
Though cocktails are well-made and nicely priced at $11, wine options are worth considering. There are blends and single-varietal Italian wines like frappato, nebbiolo, and vermentino, also at prices easy on the wallet.
Smaller plates are straightforward and solid. A kale salad with thickly shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano nods to American pizzeria salads with oregano. Thick fingers of calamari are tempura-treated in a batter that uses vodka and soda water, the final steak-like strips lifted by an airy fry. Buffalo mozzarella is buffalo mozzarella in its milky glory; balsamic-tinged onions and bitter escarole sidekick the cheese, which is for slicing into lobes and laying on salty, chewy flatbread.
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Over the course of your meal, there may be a misfire or two. The best part of a flatiron steak, unevenly hewn into strips and shyly seasoned, wasn’t the steak, wasn’t a wan parabola of saba, and wasn’t dry fingerling potatoes. It was vegetables: peppers, onions, and mushrooms all charred and steaming. Steak should be the star.
But likely, your meal will be pleasant. Italian food is among the easiest in the world to cook, and yet it is perhaps the most bungled. At Fellow, you’re in novice but capable hands.
1455 North Scottsdale Road, #100, Scottsdale
Hours: Sunday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Calamari fritto $11
Kale salad $12
Buffalo mozzarella $14
Swiss chard ravioli $14