Gio Osso Virtù Honest Craft 3701 North Marshall Way, Scottsdale 480-946-3447 www.virtuscottsdale.com
This is part one of my interview with Gio Osso, chef-owner of the brand new Virtù Honest Craft in Scottsdale. Come back tomorrow when Osso dishes about Fred and Jennifer Unger, Beau Mac, and the notion of farm-to-table.
It's opening day at Virtù Honest Craft, and Gio Osso is feeling pretty good, despite what he describes as the previous evening's "cluster" for Friends and Family night. According to Osso, nearly everything that could go wrong did, but then, that's the point of F&F anyway, getting at least one or two of the kinks worked out before officially opening the doors.
You'd think the guy would be in a mild panic, but he's relaxed -- even expansive -- as he tells me stories about his Italian family, his intimate relationship with food, and his career, which has taken enough twists and turns to put a weaker man in an endless downward spiral. But all the disappointments and dreams deferred have led to this -- Gio Osso's very own food in his very own place. He describes the ease with which he found the restaurant and a generous partner to back him as "a gift," and his wonder and gratitude about his good fortune are written right there on his face. It's Osso's time to shine, and he knows it, embraces it and comes at it like the hard-charger he naturally is, ready to work and play with equal fervor.
When I ask him where he grew up, he tells me "in that part of Italy that's called New Jersey," adding that his mother ("probably the best cook ever") didn't earn her citizenship until Osso was 8 or 9 years old. Italian was his first language, and as a child, he spent nearly every summer in Italy with his grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins on a farm on the southwest coast of Calabria. As early as he can remember, he liked to cook, and he spent many a summer day preparing lunches with his aunts in the kitchen.
Back in New Jersey, he had two older cousins he looked up to who worked in a neighborhood Italian restaurant and pizzeria. Naturally, Osso wanted to work there, too. He was 13, so they made him a busboy, but he soon migrated to the kitchen, where he rolled meatballs and made pasta with the chef. He stayed on through high school.
After graduation, he knew he wasn't interested in college, but he also knew he wouldn't get far in a restaurant job in New York without a culinary degree. So he attended the New York Restaurant School (affiliated with Culinary Institute of America at the time), later taking externships at the Algonquin Hotel and at March under celebrated chef Wayne Nish. From there, Osso spent about five years "working everywhere" -- French restaurants, Italian restaurants, Chinese and Japanese restaurants, taking pay when he could get it or doing grunt work and observing when he couldn't. He was interested in all cuisines and wanted to learn "at least a little about everything," demonstrating the same eclecticism he would put to good use at Estate House years later.
He spent three or four years at the Sonoma Grill, where John Foy brought nouvelle to New Jersey and Chef Richard Lowack became his mentor. Osso followed Lowack to a couple of other restaurants, eventually deciding to open his own place in Allendale, which he called American Gourmet. He was married at the time and doing well at juggling catering and cooking classes at his restaurant and café, but when his marriage went south, Osso decided to head southwest. He had a friend in Phoenix, and the place seemed to be enjoying a modest restaurant boom (this was about 2002), so he came ahead, finding gigs at Grazie Pizzeria and a restaurant/nightclub called Noise.
When Grazie's owners wanted to open a pasta place called Sugo, they partnered with Osso, pulling the plug two years later when they needed funds for a possible Grazie franchise. From there, Osso moved to ill-fated Spiga, which lasted less than a year. He took consulting jobs at Blue Note Cellars and Oscar Taylor (the second incarnation) before heading to Luc's, which had, by that time, become a revolving door for chefs. He felt that he was turning the place around and getting some good buzz, but he was fired because of a misunderstanding with the owners. He was devastated but quickly landed at Estate House, where Fred and Jennifer Unger were thrilled to have him, but the place suffered from a perception problem, and when the restaurant closed in 2010, Osso was just about ready to leave town for good.
But his good friend Bernie Kantak told him about an executive chef position with HMS Host (a concession company), which paid well and sounded challenging. He would be helping implement programs and procedures for the new local restaurants going into Terminal 4 at Sky Harbor. Osso took the job, which he says was fascinating, and stayed with Host for two and a half years, even considering a corporate chef position. But he and his girlfriend were getting serious, and he knew he wanted to have kids. The travel that would be required of him might not be conducive to a happy home life. He was debating what to do when the Virtù space practically fell in his lap. It was one of those meant-to-be moments. Now Osso has a new restaurant and soon a new wife, and those of us who know what a big-hearted talent he is couldn't be happier for him.
Favorite food smell: Wild strawberries. Those tiny little things have such a potent aroma!
How did you come up with the name Virtù?: Virtù actually came about eight years ago while I was in Italy on vacation. I guess I finally got around to making it happen!
Your new menu has a Mediterranean inflection. What is it you like about that little corner of the world?: What's not to like about it? It's where the refinement of modern cuisine started! Sorry, Japan, I love you, too.
It's your day off. What are you eating and drinking?: Considering we've been open for one day, on my next day off in 2015, I'll probably be eating my mother's recipe for lasagna and having a nice bottle of Nero D'Avola to wash it down.
Who are you listening to on your iPod?: Van Halen, Van Halen, and Van Halen! There is no other.
Two or three favorite local restaurants: Citizen Public House has to be my favorite. The fellas at Citizen are absolutely awesome and inspiring! Pomo is another one of my favorites. Great pizza. Virtú Honest Craft -- yup, I just gave myself a shameless plug.
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Your heritage is Italian, but do you think of yourself as an Italian chef or an American chef or an Italian-American chef or . . . ?: As Ming Tsai once put it, I make a mean moo goo gai lasagna. I'm just a chef or a really good cook. My roots are Italian, I am an American, but I love all different cultures and cuisines. So I guess you could say I'm confused.
Your elegant presentations seem to have a fine dining aspect. Will fine dining and casual dining co-exist at Virtú?: I think they can. Why not present the food as artistically as you can? So it takes 15 seconds more to execute. People dig that stuff. Fine dining visuals at casual dining prices equals home run for everyone.
Enjoy this Chef Salad? Check out Nikki's previous interviews with: Vincent Guerithault of Vincent on Camelback, Vincent's Market Bistroc Helen Yung of Sweet Republic Jacques Qualin of J&G Steakhouse Claudio Urciuoli of Noca 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 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. of Lo-Lo's Fried Chicken & Waffles Chris Bianco of Pizzeria Bianco, Bar Bianco, Pane Bianco and Trattoria Bianco Ehren Litzenberger of BLD Matt Taylor of Market Street Kitchen Kelly Fletcher of House of Tricks Jeremy Pacheco of Lon's Michael O'Dowd of Renegade by MOD