Pasta, like barbecue and tacos, is a traditional food, one with legions of people ready to give you hell should you mess with the way things have been. Many food traditions in Italy go back to the Iron Age. People have cooked and slurped pasta since the days of kings, castles, and wooden ships. Italy, Italians, and people who dig Italian food tend to be traditional. If you noodle around with pasta, you better deliver.
Fat Ox in Scottsdale noodles around with pasta.
Recently, I took a seat at the modern Italian restaurant's wide marble bar. I ordered Lambrusco, listened to the cars whooshing like surf behind me on Scottsdale Road, and ordered three bowls of pasta, my favorite food of all time. Ten minutes later, my pastas came. They came with cranberries. They came with pickles.
I believe we should keep the doors to our minds wide open. Why not pasta and pickles? What if, by some small twist of fate, pasta with pickles rocks your world? Are you going to shun the dish because it hasn’t been cooked since Galileo was studying the stars in Pisa? Of course not.
Mind open, chef Rochelle Daniel has assembled a creative roster of pastas. Her ambition and general ability to say fuck-it-let's-go are impressive. Mind open, pasta and pickles still make a bewildering pair. I would try the dish, sure, but I wouldn’t cook it in Italy. Not without body armor and maybe a jetpack.
But we don't live Italy. We live in the American Southwest.
Here in the Sonoran Desert, we aren't bound to pasta traditions. Who cares what 60 million people across the world think about our dinners? In the desert, there’s room to make pasta new. And at Fat Ox, pastas blaze their own flavor trails, charting new waters.
The restaurant’s marble bar loops into a “J.” Brassy accents, vested barkeeps, and bottles of mezcal and amari give the restaurant an Old World gravitas with a small hit of digital-age hipness. If you order at the bar between 4:30 and 6:30 p.m., you can get pastas for $9 a pop.
My three house-made pastas arrived on the marble at once. Wide-mouthed bowls cradled hot noodles. Two were green. One was purple They were crowned with wiry greens and scattered with fruit.
Pasta numero uno was a row of three tortellini. Ricotta burst from their soft, pine-green robes. It brought a warm current of milky ricotta flavor, nothing you haven't seen before. But those wiry greens on top had a snap that arrests your enjoyment, grated against the softness. Melted butter, honey, and Parmesan coated the plate's bottom. You wish this stuff was drowning the rest, to catalyze the flavors and to loop in the cranberries hanging out on the bowl’s edges.
The second bowl showed looping noodles each shaped like a “C.” This pasta shape is creste di gallo, noodles named after cockscomb, the red, glove-looking thingamajig on a rooster's head. Large bites of duck sausage hid in a wine-purple drift of creste. This duck sausage detonated with rich flavor. Sadly, our noodles and tiny huckleberries got utterly withered in the meaty intensity. At a certain point, you may look to spear the sausage solo and forget the creste until the meat is history.
Last but not least: pasta with pickles.
Pickles are just one small component of the dish, the main one being rigatoni. Rigatoni are a pasta that doesn't improve much from "upgrading" the boxed version to fresh. Boxed rigatoni is legit. The shape thrives with some bite, the kind of bite you can't get when boiling fresh pasta. Making pasta from-scratch offers a range of returns: some pastas are worth hand-rolling, some are better out of the box.
Fettuccine are better fresh. Noodles or sauces that call for a bite often reach their heights when the preparation is made with boxed pasta. A sauce like aglio e olio (oil and garlic) and a noodle like bucatini (hollow spaghetti) both turn out better when using boxed pasta. Arguably, there’s no real need for fresh rigatoni.
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The soft rigatoni in my bowl could have benefited from some chew. But it was the pickles, present in every third or fourth bite, that brought the pasta into odd territory. Their tartness threw the rest of the dish into relief, exposing how wan the flavors were next to the memory of an Old World, long-cooked sauce. The tangy bites brought me back to dollar-dog nights at baseball games, to glass jars, to footlong deli sandwiches.
At this point, I had missed my turn miles ago. Pasta shouldn't take me to these places. Done right, pasta should bring a person to paradise.
All three pastas tried to do too much. They defied the simple nature of pasta, a food that should whisper rather than shout to the soul. Shouting, though, would have been fine if the pieces had puzzled together. I really want to return to this bar in a few months and eat pasta that rasps beautiful things in starchy tones. Maybe more salt would have done the trick. Maybe pasta at Fat Ox needs to keep evolving.
Fat Ox. 6316 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale; 480-307-6900.
Hours: Sunday to Thursday 4:30 to 9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 4:30 to 10:30 p.m.