Cafe Reviews

Craft 64 Does Craft Brew and Wood-Fired Pizza Better Than Most in Central Scottsdale

On a recent Saturday afternoon in Old Town Scottsdale, the galleries and bistros on Main Street were mostly empty and somber-looking in the gray December weather. But Craft 64, the pizza and craft beer joint that opened in March near the Hotel Valley Ho, was flush with music, chatter, and the sound of clinking pint glasses. English Premier League football flashed on the flat-screen TVs over the bar, classic rock poured out of the house speakers, and the smell of marinara and baked focaccia wafted through the dining room. It was, in other words, a campfire of a restaurant: the one spot on an otherwise dead stretch of Main Street where everyone seemed to be gathering for a bone-warming pint of porter and a hot slice of pizza.

But you can't credit bad winter weather for Craft 64's popularity; you're just as likely to find as many people in the dining room and at the bar during the season of triple digits and summer ales. Its formula for success lies in the merging of two colossal food trends — wood-fired pizza and craft beer — brought together with a deft touch that's hard to resist. Pizza and beer is an unremarkable concept for a new restaurant and bar. But it's tough to find a place around downtown Scottsdale that's doing it as well as Craft 64.

The dining room, which features local art and craft beer posters on the walls, doesn't rely on ambiance to charm its guests. Located in a historic adobe home that formerly housed a linens store, the noisy and casual dining room has the laid-back appeal of a neighborhood British pub. What sets Craft 64 apart is its carefully designed food and drink menu, which reflects the collective wisdom of co-owners and managing partners Josh Ivey, Roger Carpenter, James Swann, and Scott Hagen. Among the quartet you'll find a trained sommelier (Ivey), a former wine bistro owner (Carpenter, who owned Gilbert's shuttered Down Under Wines), a professional beer buyer and former general manager at SanTan Brewing Co. (Swann), and a local craft beer aficionado (Hagen). To top off the roster, the savvy team recruited Horacio "Lachos" Hernandez — Chris Bianco's right-hand man for more than 15 years at Pizzeria Bianco — as the kitchen's executive chef.

You'll notice that much attention has been placed on the drink menu, which features a well-rounded wine list with almost 30 bottles available by the glass. Short descriptions, haiku-like in their simplicity, help make the list accessible ("Citrus oil, white peach, pear, long floral finish," reads the description for a California Chardonnay). But it's the beer list — a rotating selection of about 36 craft brews on tap, all local — that keeps the bar packed (the "64" in the restaurant's name refers to the 64 ounces in a growler, which are available for purchase). Most regions of the state are represented, and the bar has even managed to secure small, corny kegs of some non-distributed Arizona beers.

The food menu, fortunately, has not been ignored in the rush to secure Arizona's best brews. The mozzarella is made fresh daily, as are the house dressings and focaccia bread. You'll want to whet your appetite, or pair your drink, with the house charcuterie board, which showcases the kitchen's penchant for simple yet refined ingredients. It includes a cluster of dark grapes framed on either side by rich, oily slices of soppressata and pepperoni. Creamy nubs of aged cheddar and bleu cheese add depth, and a sprinkling of mixed nuts and pumpkin seeds delivers earthy, salty crunch to the board.

Opting for salad at a pizza joint doesn't always yield the best results; sometimes the "garden salad" is nothing more than yesterday's iceberg. Here you'll find house specialties like the bistro bacon salad, a messy, leafy pile of spinach and frisée dressed in a tart Dijon vinaigrette and topped with slices of hardboiled egg. The salad, generously apportioned with thick, glistening hunks of bacon, is surprisingly filling and savory.

You might be tempted to dismiss the kale pear salad; the ubiquity of soulless kale salads, some more like roughage than real food, has earned the trendy greens some backlash lately. But you'd be wise to give this one a shot. It's wrapped in a luscious pumpkin dressing, which brings the frilly greens to life with a sweet-and-tangy zest. Parmigiano reggiano, showered over the greens in thick, salty slices, along with a sprinkling of pumpkin seeds and dried cranberries, add salty and sweet pops of flavor.

But what about the pizza? There are a mere eight specialty pies on the menu, with specials added on the weekends. The pizzas are wood-fired, Neapolitan-style creations, cooked in a blast of heat in an oven imported from Italy that's designed to be flamed upward of 900 degrees. The traditional Neapolitan cooking process produces blistery, elastic thin-crust pies with wet, almost raw-looking centers and flame-charred crusts. The result is a sometimes-floppy, drippy slice of pizza that, depending on who you ask, is the gorgeous culmination of southern Italy's ancient pizza-making heritage, or a rather sparsely topped, slightly burnt pie.

No matter on what side of the Neapolitan divide you stand, there is something to be said about Craft 64's Aji pie. Named after the spicy South American green chili sauce, it's the kitchen's most creative and memorable effort. A brilliant medley of savory and spicy notes, the pizza is studded with juicy rounds of fennel sausage, which plays against the tart, jalapeño-laced sauce. Pillowy mounds of ricotta, and a handful of spinach, keep the spice at just the right levels.

If you appreciate the spiciness of the Aji, don't pass on the simply named Spain. The pie, topped with Spanish chorizo, cured olives, roasted red pepper, and a blast of harissa sauce, is not exactly an exercise in subtlety. The spicy heat from the chorizo, which is sliced like pepperoni and layered on thick, is amplified by the garlicky harissa sauce. It's a boldly flavored pie that may not suit every palate, but it's a must-try if you're partial to harissa, sriracha, or other fiery hot sauces.

Then there's the Fico, a fig-and-truffle oil pie that is equal parts earthy and sweet. The house blend of fresh mozzarella and parmigiana reggiano adds mellow, savory depths, and a handful of arugula cuts the richness with just enough peppery, mustardy flavor.

One of the heartiest and most nicely balanced pizza offerings at Craft 64 is the Carne, a meat-lover's pie loaded with spicy nubs of fennel sausage and baked-in layers of spicy soppressata and pepperoni slices. The basil-scented tomato sauce base, which is featured on only about half the pies on the menu, offers a sweet and mellow finish to every bite.

You may be tempted to end your meal on a sweet note. Craft 64 offers two desserts, the best of which is the tiramisu. It's light and frothy and easy enough to spoon to a finish. The other dessert is a house creation called Nutella Indulgence, and the name is no exaggeration. The heavy dessert, which features several wedges of pizza dough stuffed with Nutella-drenched plantains, is too much to handle after a meal of beer and pizza. The stuffed dough oozes Nutella at every turn, and the hazelnuts baked into the bread are lost completely in a cloying muddle of sugar and chocolate.

But you won't come to Craft 64 for dessert. And you won't come to try the latest exercise in fusion cuisine, or to dabble in fancy wine pairings among a white tablecloth spread. You'll come to keep warm — or stay cool, depending on the season — with a local beer, and to enjoy the un-fancy yet classic pairing of pizza and beer.

Craft 64
6922 East Main Street, Scottsdale
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily

Bistro bacon salad $9
Carne pizza $19
Fico pizza $15
Nutella Indulgence $8

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Patricia Escárcega was Phoenix New Times' food critic.