Restaurant News

A Celebrated Scottsdale Chef Pivots Back to Pizza

Topping a margherita pizza with olive oil.
Topping a margherita pizza with olive oil. Chris Malloy
When he first got to town almost two decades ago, Gio Osso baked pizza. The now-celebrated chef of Virtú Honest Craft in Scottsdale got his start in pizza when he was 13, back in a New Jersey pizzeria, making New York-style pies. After landing in the Valley, he took the oven most weeknights at Grazie, an Italian eatery in downtown Scottsdale. Now, years later, he’s back at that same oven.

Grazie recently closed. Osso built Pizzeria Virtú in its former space. He just soft-opened, yet still is tweaking final details of his pizza recipe.

Last Wednesday, Osso stood beside the familiar corner brick oven, newly painted white. Flames plumed from oak, pecan, and apple wood. “This place was my first job,” he says. “It kind of brings me back full circle. I was making pizzas here for about a year.”

click to enlarge Gio Osso at his old and new pizza oven. - CHRIS MALLOY
Gio Osso at his old and new pizza oven.
Chris Malloy
Pizzeria Virtú is a quick walk from Virtú Honest Craft. Like the latter, the pizzeria has spacious patios, an amaro-heavy bar program, whimsical-but-erudite Italian ingredient unions, and white-clothed tables set with sprigs of rosemary. There will also be nods to Calabria, the Italian region of Osso’s parents and family. Osso has won acclaim for Virtú Honest Craft since it opened in 2013. His newest opening, as its name suggests, will be Virtú but in pizzeria form.

“I stayed in the vein of Virtú,” he says. “I’m going to change it whenever I feel like changing it. If I want to scrap this whole menu and do something different, I will.”

While he expects the menu to change, pizza will remain its cornerstone. Osso is committed to pizza. In the run up to Pizzeria Virtú’s recent soft opening, he tested hundreds — and that doesn’t even include his time studying with the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (AVPN) in California.

At Pizzeria Virtú, Osso will make Neapolitan-style pizza. He grew up making another style entirely. So he went west to learn with Peppe Miele, president of AVPN Americas, for a week of one-on-one classes.

“To pick his brain for a week was just outstanding,” Osso says. “It was an experience of a lifetime. But everything I knew about pizza, I had to relearn.”

click to enlarge Reaching into the brick oven to give pizza a quick turn. - CHRIS MALLOY
Reaching into the brick oven to give pizza a quick turn.
Chris Malloy
The changes flow from his pivot to Neapolitan. Osso is shooting for an AVPN certification for Pizzeria Virtú, a designation that just a few other Valley pizzerias have. To get the body’s approval, a pizzeria has to follow a rule book. Use sea salt. No olive oil in dough. Cook pizza for a certain time, at a certain heat, and to certain dimensions. Use San Marzano tomatoes. Crust must puff up to a swollen rim, called a cornicione.

Under AVPN strictures, Osso can't “open” the dough the way he did back in Grazie and Jersey. Even a tactic as simple as shaping required a wholesale re-education. “We spent the whole day making pizza,” Osso says. “All day long. Just practice, practice, practice. We played with different hydrations, different flours, different tomatoes …”

His own post-California practice continued through the first day of soft opening, last Tuesday.

click to enlarge Wood-fired pizza is the Neapolitan and Arizonan way. - CHRIS MALLOY
Wood-fired pizza is the Neapolitan and Arizonan way.
Chris Malloy
Standing before the oven, working on doughs of different hydration levels, Osso started to stretch, sprinkle, and bake small pies. For pizza, his staff makes fior di latte, a mozzarella-like cheese. He has plans to soon utilize a climate-controlled dough room.

In terms of final pizza types, Osso will be offering traditional options, like margherita and marinara, as well as pizzas that veer more into the spirit of Virtú and Calabria. One pizza will have caciocavallo cheese and broccoli rabe pesto. Others will have robiola cheese and mortadella, stracchino cheese and chestnut honey.

He also hopes to tap a connection to the Santa Monica Farmers Market, just like at Virtú. Through this channel, he plans to source rarer finds like agretti (a seaweed-like green) and spigarello (an Italian broccoli). He dreams of these finds on pizza.

And this could all change on a dime.

Pizza will be the heart but not the whole of the menu. A pasta trio will be baked: manicotti, a Neapolitan lasagna, and noodles stuffed with Calabrian pressed olives aged under the pressure of a lid and heavy stone (a recipe from Osso's late aunt). Desserts will be simple: tiramisu, Nutella budino, affogato.

click to enlarge Probing for doneness. - CHRIS MALLOY
Probing for doneness.
Chris Malloy
Again, Pizzeria Virtú is in soft opening now. It fully opens in early February, when, hundreds and hundreds of pies later, Osso hopes to have his recipe airtight.

And so you’ll find him at Pizzeria Virtú practicing in his old oven, stretching and pealing dough. Osso slots his wooden peal's edge into a thin recess he had built into his marble pizza counter, allowing the peal to keep sturdy and motionless. He builds pies, slides them on the peal, and shovels them by the fire. It spits and crackles.

He watches. He peers into the flames, wondering about the cooking rate, the bubbling cheese, the spots on the crust. Looking on, he gets ready to make his first turn of three after 20 seconds, edging ever slightly closer toward his perfect pie.

Pizzeria Virtú
6952 East Main Street, Scottsdale; 480-663-9797.
Note: Check the website for updates on hours. Slated to fully open in early February.
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Chris Malloy, former food editor and current food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes reviews but also narrative stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy