Cafe Reviews

Federal Pizza: Empire-Building on Central Avenue

Thanks to Craig DeMarco's neighborhood, there may not be a time more fortuitous in Valley history than the present to be a diner (or an old building) in north Central Phoenix.

Over the past few years, the restaurateur and his Upward Projects team have gobbled up once-forgotten structures clustered along Central Avenue north of Camelback Road and transformed them into popular neighborhood gathering spots that are as much about style as food. There's the hip wine cafe Postino Central, with its chunky bruschetta topped with tomato jam and sheep's milk cheese; Windsor, the smart upscale bar with numbered cocktails and jumbo lump crab cakes; and the retro-snazzy ice cream parlor, Churn. The only thing left in the wake of their genesis has been a slew of smiling customers.

The group's latest and fourth conquest, opened in October, is Federal Pizza. As with the other popular restaurants in Mr. DeMarco's neighborhood, the pizza parlor is a bustling yet intimate place — happening enough to draw a stylish crowd but not so hip to exclude one's parents from paying a visit. And its food — heady roasted vegetables, luscious pasta, and puffy-crusted pizzas laden with toppings — are dishes that the kitchen, like each of DeMarco's kitchens, has not so much reinvented as it has crafted with expert care.

There is a tidy and thoughtful list of wine and local and craft beer. Served on draft — in shorties, pints, and pitchers — as well as cans, bottles, bombers, and growlers and chubs to go, the suds come in many shapes and sizes. And for fans of wine coolers, Federal's fruity and colorful homemade creations, including grapefruit ginger and raspberry lavender, are poured from dainty bottles and are as refreshing as they are adorable.

The menu of starters, pizza, pasta, and sandwiches is just as tight. Incorporating ingredients like house mozzarella and burrata, signature sauces, locally procured sausage, and a farmers market's bounty of vegetables, dishes range from the dependable to the very good to the sublime.

To start, there are fried vegetables (because who doesn't like fried vegetables?), crunchy bites of baby artichokes, zucchini, and sweet potato, along with a few morsels of mozzarella and sauces of romesco and Green Goddess. Fuller in flavor, but requiring more refined sharing manners, is a trio of chunky, well-seasoned meatballs slathered in marina sauce atop a golden wedge of crispy polenta. And don't skip over stellar sides like big roasted Brussels sprouts (better here than as a too-strong pizza topping) with crunchy pancetta and highly addictive corn coins, thick discs of sweet, sliced corn on the cob coated in fennel, herbs, and salty pecorino cheese. They're good enough to share before the meal as well as during it.

The salads are festive bowls of lively greens punctuated with ingredients like currants, fennel, and smoked almonds. The Federal Chop, a colorful creation made with sopressata, pepperoni, provolone, pepperoncini, tomato, and red onion in a light dressing of oregano vinaigrette, has all the flavors you'd enjoy in an Italian sub minus the bun. Lighter, but no less satisfying, is The TLC Salad with fresh greens, beets, pears, smoked almonds, fennel, and Pecorino cheese in citrus shallot vinaigrette.

Of course, there are the pizzas. Designed by MJ Coe, one of the Valley's best-known master bakers, the 12-inch pies feature a light and crispy outer crust with a thick, puffy edge, a slightly chewy interior, and a harmonious flavor balance of toppings applied deftly by the kitchen. They are not the best you've had in the Valley, but that is not an indictment of Federal's pies; they are actually quite good.

There is the Big Star, a commanding pizza loaded with Schreiner's sausage, peppers, mushrooms, olives, red sauce, and roasted onions. Less substantial but still satisfying is the Manifesto, topped with mushrooms, fennel, Schreiner's sausage, and goat cheese. My favorite, the Casanova, is a robust mix of flavors and textures courtesy of prosciutto, dates, ricotta, arugula, and Pecorino cheese. And if you want to customize your pie, Federal offers 30 à la carte ingredients with which to express yourself.

Federal may be pizza in name, but its pasta and sandwich selections are good enough to rival its headliner. There is a near-perfect bowl of orecchietti, in which the tiny, ear-shaped pasta pieces are served in a broth of shallots and herbs along with bitter and slightly salty Swiss chard and a generous helping of spicy Schreiner's sausage. And if you like MJ Coe's pizza crust, his light and crispy housemade bread is equally flavorful for sandwiches. In hefty hoagies like the Porchetta, the kitchen packs in such delights as juicy, slow-roasted pork loin, pork belly, caramelized onions, arugula, and a hint of lemon. Or, if your preference is vegetables, The Funghi, bulked out with thick and firm roasted Portobello, tomato, onions, fennel, goat cheese, and a slathering of eggplant puree, is an earthy garden of delights.

For dessert? Choose the warm, three-berry cobbler topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream from Federal's across-the-street neighbor, Churn.

Given Federal Pizza's welcoming atmosphere and stylish yet comfortable scene, you could not be blamed for lingering here longer than you might at other restaurants in town. Set in the restored 1950s First Federal Savings & Loan building (DeMarco also is restoring the building just to the south of Federal, reportedly turning it into a Mexican restaurant), a sleek bar runs down one side of the long room, an open kitchen the other, and in the middle, a row of leatherette booths with tables at either end. Servers, in denim jeans and plaid shirts, work the aisles with an easygoing confidence. Under low lights and moving with the beats of the pop tunes playing overhead, they are yours for the evening, never letting on that there's still a crowd of people outside the doors waiting for a table.

Just another beautiful day in the neighborhood.

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Laura Hahnefeld
Contact: Laura Hahnefeld