I often find myself wondering when the seemingly insatiable desire for culinary reinterpretation and deconstruction will finally have reached its endgame, when food has been reinvented and disassembled to the point that it loses its appeal altogether. This is the modern gastronomic age in which diners marvel at a microscopic fleck of meat on a stark white plate contrasted with a ghastly smear of sauce, the "protein" having been wrought so deftly by the kitchen that it no longer bears any resemblance to the animal from which it originated. This is the era of tweezers as a kitchen tool and sous vide circulators maintaining a degree of thermal precision that seems best suited for a laboratory, not a restaurant kitchen.
I don't see this trend ending well. The intersection of food, art, and science is an awfully tedious place.
Eventually, we will return to real food: sauce that splatters your shirt, meat that isn't geometric, the juvenile and tactile exercise of slurping a piece of pasta through your lips, and the pleasure that comes from eating your food instead of talking about it ad nauseam.
Guido's of Chicago, which occupies a sleepy corner of a strip mall in Scottsdale, has been doing just that for over 30 years. Who knew?
Actually, I did. I ate at Guido's in the mid-1980s with my dad. Back then, the intersection of Scottsdale and Shea was the last outpost of North Scottsdale. I was a kid, and Guido's was memorable only in the basic sense that I knew I had consumed something good. And in my adulthood, I wandered back, wondering if time had played a trick on my memory or if the food was really as good as I recalled.
I left asking myself if there could possibly be a better marinara in this town. Resplendent and nuanced, this sauce is the perfect counterpoint to modern culinary trendiness. Instead of being highly refined and silky smooth, it has texture — lightly seasoned, and garlicky as if it came from a big, simmering pot in your own kitchen, not a lab experiment. After all, it's made in-house every day, just like the hearty Bolognese and rich Alfredo sauces. And when it adorns a simple bowl of spaghetti, this sauce truly is an eloquent expression of food that reflects time-tested traditions and repetition.
Linguini with white clam sauce, one of my perennial favorites, initially impressed me as bland, but it took on a whole new dimension when I squeezed in the accompanying four large slices of lemon, which brightened up the dish with a welcome acidic twist. I doubt there's a tweezer in the kitchen, but I suspect there's a lot of garlic.
That amazing red sauce successfully works its way into so many menu items. This is a casual place — part Italian grocery and part restaurant — and the menu rarely strays from predictable and satisfying Chicago-style Italian standards. The lasagna is a standout. Not only is the portion size staggering, but it features Guido's own Italian sausage, made in-house. In fact, anything with the sausage is worthwhile, including housemade Italian sausage sub sandwich and a classic sausage and peppers sandwich. All sandwiches come on perfectly chewy Italian bread from local wholesale baker John Anthoney's, just up the street from Guido's. This crusty bread has the needed structure to stand up to Guido's meatballs, eggplant Parmesan, and the popular Italian sub, a satisfying — if salty — combination of salami, cappicola, mortadella, and provolone cheese with tangy Italian dressing and onions. Half sandwiches are available and highly recommended because the portion sizes are huge.
Broaster chicken, something of a Chicago phenomenon, seems out of place in an Italian deli, but it's a highlight at Guido's. It's essentially fried chicken, except that the frying is done in a pressure fryer instead of a standard deep fryer. Supposedly, it's healthier, but, really, who cares when it achieves the desired dichotomy of a crunchy exterior and juicy meat inside? On several occasions, I found the white meat to be dry, but only when the chicken wasn't fresh out of the fryer. It's better at the restaurant than as takeout, but in either case, it's far superior to the standard fast food fried chicken options.
Chicago and sports go hand in hand, so it's not much of a surprise that Buffalo wings, the perfect sports food, make an appearance on the menu. They're good, too. The sauce is spicy and rich, with texture from the unusual addition of green onions. They're big wings; I couldn't finish an order and took them home. They were even better the next day eaten cold (right out of the refrigerator, standing at the kitchen counter), the sauce slightly mellowed and thickened.
The Italian beef sandwich, the kind popularized locally by the behemoth chain Portillo's, is a Chicago staple. And once you've had Guido's version, you won't waste your time at Portillo's anymore. Guido makes his own beef daily from highly seasoned top round, and soaks it in as much gravy as you wish. It's a thicker cut than Portillo's and a little chewier, but it also tastes better. It's even better when combined with one of Guido's own sausages as a combo.
Although the recipes have remained constant over its 30 years, Guido's has evolved over time. Araceli Guido, Joe's wife, has breathed new life into the dessert and bakery offerings. Cannoli makes for a nice end to a meal, but the delicate sfogliatelle are artful. They're light, airy, and almost too pretty to eat. She also bakes her own biscotti, fig cookies, and delicious, dense Italian wedding cookies. Ironically, she's Mexican — not Italian — and lately has been making tamales, too. You won't find them on the menu, but if you tell Guido's you're interested, someone will take your phone number and contact you when they're available, usually every six weeks.
Guido's story is a familiar one. Joe moved to Phoenix in 1983 when he was 26, the son of parents who owned a Chicago chain of Italian grocery stores for over 70 years. Seeking warmer weather and a better life, they moved to Scottsdale and Joe eventually took over the family business, turning a 1,400-square-foot takeout counter into a full-fledged restaurant, deli, and successful catering operation. It has an intangible element of character that's lacking in so many Phoenix restaurants, which tend to come and go based on the popular food trend of the day. Joe is a bit of an intimidating character, tall, broad, with a big bald head and a street-smart, tough exterior. But get him talking about food, and he sheds that armor quickly. He's often sitting in one of the booths in the back, directing his staff and greeting customers by name. It's readily apparent that he's proud to carry his family's legacy and that his constant presence in the neighborhood is something that matters.
And it does matter. When the Food Network stars burn out and we've finally grown weary of food so finicky that it takes the fun out of eating, when we're tired of concepts and just left with restaurants, we resort to simple food and simple pleasures. And that's exactly what Guido's delivers.