Claudio Urciuoli on Olive Garden, Truffle Oil, and the Weirdest Thing He Ever Ate (Which Is Pretty Weird)

Claudio Urciuoli Noca 3118 E. Camelback Road, Phoenix 602-956-6622, restaurantnoca.com

See also: -- Noca Re-Opens with New Look, New Breads and New Cocktail Program -- Noca Serves Up Wallet-Friendly Lunch with Nocawich

This is part one of my interview with Claudio Urciuoli, the executive chef at Noca. Come back Tuesday when Urciuoli talks about his stint at Il Fornaio, baking bread with Nancy Silverton, and one of his favorite restaurants in Phoenix.

Everybody and his mother jabbers about "seasonal" and "farm-to-table" these days -- words so over-used they're almost devoid of meaning. And while it's easy to talk the talk, only a handful of chefs and restaurants actually walk the walk. Even fewer take the philosophy to heart in the same laser-focused way that Claudio Urciuoli does. But then, cooking what's in season and sourcing great ingredients isn't a new idea or a trendy marketing tool for this Italian-born immigrant. It's a way of life.

Urciuoli grew up in a family that practiced the Slow Food philosophy as a matter of course. His grandfather hunted, made wine for the family, and sold hazelnuts; his grandmother gardened, ran a salumeria, and cooked for the family. His father sold flour. Bread was everything and there was an oven, dating back to the 1800s, in the house. The family made vinegar and pickled vegetables. He grew up eating simple dishes made with fresh, ultra-local ingredients, nothing wasted or taken for granted. When Urciuoli figured out his destiny was not art -- as his art teacher mother had hoped -- he enrolled in culinary school in Liguria and upon graduation, began working in high-end restaurants around Europe.

Having fallen in love with the United States on an earlier visit, Urciuoli moved to this country when he was 23, landing on the East Coast but soon finding his way to California, where he got a job at the Four Seasons In Newport Beach but soon moved to Il Fornaio. Being surrounded by other Italians felt like home and Urciuoli stayed for nine years, eventually running the restaurant group's most profitable restaurant while helping open new ones as the company expanded. After a brief detour to Vegas (where he opened Bellagio), Urciuoli returned to California to work for Nancy Silverton at La Brea Bakery, helping her grow the business from boutique operation to national brand.

But by 2004, when Kimpton Hotels came calling, Urciuoli was ready to take on a new challenge. Overseeing Taggia -- a brand new coastal Italian restaurant at Scottsdale's FireSky Resort -- seemed like a no-brainer for a guy who grew up on the Italian coast. But after three years of traveling back and forth to D.C., where he was also overseeing another Kimpton restaurant, Urciuoli quit and moved to Different Pointe of View on the advice of a good friend who worked there, later moving to Prado at the Montelucia -- a much better fit, given the number of Europeans who worked for the company. When the resort's financial future seemed uncertain, Urciuoli hung in for a while, eventually accepting his friend Chris Bianco's offer to help out at Pane Bianco and Pizzeria Bianco as Bianco's restaurant group transitioned into new ventures with Jamie Oliver in the U.K.

Two years later, the two parted ways -- an amicable split Urciuoli chalks up to differences of opinion about ingredients -- and Urciuoli began a dialogue with his old friend Eliot Wexler. The two had been pals since the Taggia days (Urciuoli cooked dinner at Wexler's house once a week for years), and the thought of working together was appealing to both of them. Wexler knew that Urciuoli was fanatical about ingredients (Italian ingredients, in particular) and given his own bent for sourcing fantastic seafood, the working relationship showed promise. Urciuoli has been running the kitchen at Noca for nearly 10 months now. Wexler lets him do his thing, and his thing naturally involves simple, beautiful dishes made with artisanal Italian ingredients. And bread. Lots of bread. At Noca, Urciuoli can be himself, an Italian doing Italian the best way he knows how.

Five words to describe you: Five! A lot of words for me. Idealistic, generous (I'm a very giving guy), driven (I know what I gotta do), humble, and courageous (I took a lot of chances). I like a challenge, to do something you don't know how it's going to come out.

Five words to describe Noca: Ingredient-driven, whimsical, integrity, honesty (to serve the ingredients that we do and offer them at a very fair price), passionate.

Favorite food smell: Bread coming out of the wood-burning oven. It makes me think of my grandmother's bread. I like the smell of wood and fire.

Do you read cookbooks?: I look at pictures. I see the ingredients, but I don't really look at much more. I like to learn the history, but not the recipe, unless it's really unique.

Ingredient you love to cook with: Olive oil. The olive oil allows me to make a meal out of it -- with a piece of bread or a bowl of beans. I can eat that every day. Minimalistic, I would say. That's part of my childhood.

Most overrated ingredient: Truffle oil. I don't think it's real. The flavor is not the same as with the truffle. The oil is overpowering.

Most underrated ingredient: Fresh anchovies. I don't think Americans think of anchovies as a great fish, but for me, it's one of the greatest fish because of my culture. It's fantastic raw, it's fantastic grilled, it's a very versatile fish, and the flavor is incredible. And it's affordable.

Name a cuisine, other than Italian, you love: Japanese. I like the way they handle the fish, their philosophy, their history, their minimalist approach, their whole approach to food.

Weirdest thing you ever ate: Sanguinaccio, which is blood of the pig coagulated with chocolate. It becomes like a pudding. I was too little to appreciate it, but it really did taste like chocolate.

What people don't really understand about Italian cooking is: The originality of Italian cooking is a bit unknown to the public. There are so many different regions, it's a little difficult to classify. If I were asked if Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant, I would say "No." But if somebody thinks so, that's okay. I don't judge. These big places, they sound Italian because of the name, and maybe they use some ingredient -- like garlic -- that plays a part in Italian cooking. But they aren't really Italian. A big transformation in Italian cooking was when the immigrant came to New York and adapted the dishes. They made a meatball and they put it with spaghetti. Is that Italian? No, we don't serve meatballs on pasta.

Enjoy this Chef Salad? Check out Nikki's previous interviews with: Matt Pool of Matt's Big Breakfast Jared Porter of The Parlor Charleen Badman of FnB Tony Abou-Ganim & Adam Seger Charlotte Voisey of Best American Brands Ambassador Steve Olson of Valley Ho Dough Robson of Gallo Blanco Edward Farrow of The Cafe at MIM Greg LaPrad of Quiessence & Morning Glory Cafe Joshua Johnson of Kai Joshua Johnson of Kai Todd Sicolo of T.Cooks Josh Riesner of Pig & Pickle Lester Gonzalez of Cowboy Ciao M.J. Coe of Federal Pizza Steven "Chops" Smith of Searsucker Aaron Chamberlin of St. Francis Michael Rusconi of Rusconi's American Kitchen Chrysa Robertson of Rancho Pinot Lynn Rossetto of The Splendid Table Cullen Campbell of Crudo DJ Monti Carlo Pete DeRuvo of Davanti Enoteca Chuck Wiley of Cafe ZuZu Justin Beckett of Beckett's Table Bryan Dooley of Bryan's Black Mountain Barbecue Silvana Salcido Esparza of Barrio Cafe Jeff Kraus of Crepe Bar Bernie Kantak of Citizen Public House James Porter of Petite Maison Johnny Chu of SoChu House Neo Asian + Martini Bar Stephen Jones of Blue Hound Kitchen & Cocktails Chris Gross of Christopher's Restaurant and Crush Lounge Chris Curtiss of NoRTH Arcadia Payton Curry of Brat Haus Mark Tarbell of Tarbell's Josh Hebert of Posh Kevin Binkley of Binkley's Restaurant Lori Hashimoto of Hana Japanese Eatery Larry White, Jr. Lo-Lo's Fried Chicken & Waffles

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