Cafe Reviews

One of the Best New Italian Restaurants in Phoenix is Hidden in the Biltmore Neighborhood

Comfort food classics sing at Dieci.
Comfort food classics sing at Dieci. Jacob Tyler Dunn
At certain times of the day, the Esplanade — the mixed-used development near 24th Street and Camelback Road — can feel eerily desolate.

The complex has been known to turn into a ghost town after business hours, and its sprawling, boxy design, anchored by soaring office towers, lends a gloomy air of impenetrability. From the street, it’s difficult to make out the shops, restaurants, and AMC movie theater tucked deep into the folds of the property. First-time visitors have been known to drive around the block looking for a place to park, or some semblance of a main entrance (a parking garage with access to the movie theatre and restaurants is located on Esplanade Drive, behind the complex).

Despite all these obvious shortcomings, though, the Esplanade has managed to stay afloat for decades, even as its primary champion and developer, former Arizona Governor Fife Symington, was charged with bank fraud. Over the years, the air of scandal has faded, and the Esplanade’s new owners have made serious efforts to inject new life into the complex.

click to enlarge JACOB TYLER DUNN
Jacob Tyler Dunn
The arrival of an AMC Dine-In movie theater in 2011 brought steady foot traffic, and the debut last year of a swanky new boutique hotel next door, The Camby, has brought a little glamour to the aging complex.

The Esplanade itself might not be dead, but over the years, it’s earned a reputation as a sort of culinary killjoy — a place that chews up restaurants and spits them out. Nationally recognized chains like Houston’s and Del Frisco’s Grille, formerly at the Esplanade, have closed or moved to different locations.

It takes a healthy amount of confidence, then, and maybe a streak of defiance, to open a restaurant at the Esplanade. Jeff Hostenske, the chef-owner of TEN, a well-received restaurant and cocktail bar that debuted at the Esplanade in 2014, must surely be in possession of both qualities.

Since its debut, TEN has showcased Hostenske’s talent for devising clever, accessible menus, which bring together disparate influences to appeal to a wide range of customers.

And he’s done it again with Dieci, a new Italian restaurant that opened at the Esplanade earlier this year.

Dieci is located just a few doors down from TEN, taking over the space formerly occupied by Solo Trattoria. Not too much has changed in the dining room, a bland, comfortable space that eschews trendy design work in favor of inoffensive still-life wall art, and a modern red-and-black color scheme. A partially open kitchen near the back of the restaurant offers tantalizing glimpses of your dinner coming together.

Thanks to its proximity to the AMC theater upstairs, Dieci has become a de facto spot for movie meetups and date nights. In light of this, service tends to be friendly and nimble; the staff has a knack for dispatching drinks and food in a way that feels both efficient and unrushed.

The menu, described as “Italian-American,” is earnest and unflashy. And this is what makes Dieci so satisfying — it’s a red-sauce Italian joint of the sort that’s become increasingly rare in recent years. You have more than likely eaten this type of food countless times before, but at Dieci, a bowl of pasta is capable of inspiring fresh delight.

click to enlarge What's not to love about fried risotto? - JACOB TYLER DUNN
What's not to love about fried risotto?
Jacob Tyler Dunn
You should probably start with the mussels pomodoro, a lovely appetizer garnished with feathery sprigs of dill. It’s rich and satisfying, thanks in large part to its flavorful, spicy tomato broth, which crackles with notes of garlic and peppers.

It’s hard to go very wrong with arancini, and you certainly won’t here. The crispy risotto balls are beautifully, cleanly fried, with a delicately crisp exterior and a molten-hot nucleus of extra-cheesy, buttery rice.

Calamari is a little less successful. The chewy squid rings were oily on a recent visit, although a scattering of Chicago hot peppers added a nice measure of tanginess to the dish.

For the lunch crowd, there are sandwiches. The Italian beef features a delicious jumble of shaved roasted beef and hot peppers, crowbarred between two slices of bread. It’s heavenly.

There is a small, strong pizza menu, on which the most memorable pie, Forget About It, is richly mosaicked with a motley assortment of thrown-together toppings. It’s a hand-stretched beauty, topped on my visit with scraps of prosciutto, extra-crispy rounds of pepperoni, arugula, green olives, hunks of sausage, and a smattering of vinegary peppers. The meatiness of the pie mingled beautifully with the tomato sauce, and there’s a satisfying crispy crunch to the crust that’s hard not to love.

You most likely came for the pasta, though, which is arguably the restaurant’s strongest selling point.

click to enlarge Ricotta and pomodoro harmonize in the simple rigatoni pasta dish. - JACOB TYLER DUNN
Ricotta and pomodoro harmonize in the simple rigatoni pasta dish.
Jacob Tyler Dunn
There’s nothing esoteric or uniquely regional about the pasta menu at Dieci, but that will hardly matter once a tureen overflowing with baked rigatoni lands on the table. The tubular pasta, bathed in the simple but rich house pomodoro sauce, are impeccable in texture — light and springy, yet irresistible to chew. The kitchen is prudent with the pomodoro and ricotta cheese, which allows the flavor to cling to the pasta without overwhelming the noodles.

Butternut squash ravioli may strike you as trite, but the Dieci rendition is dazzling. Your dish arrives with three oversize raviolis floating on brown butter sauce, the dough pressed into seamless, perfect circles, which delicately hold the sweet, nutty flavors of the squash. A few fried leaves of sage perfume the butter sauce, and a generous scattering of pine nuts add a layer of nutty, rich flavor and texture. The dish is what you want from a plate of fresh ravioli: the lush, melty harmony of pasta, filling, and sauce, brought together in one bite.

From the small entrée menu, the dish to try at least once is the chicken Parmesan, which feels like a very deliberate inversion of the dish’s most typical flaws — too dry, too rubbery, too soggy, too thin. This chicken breast is notably plump and beautifully breaded. The tomato sauce is doled out sparingly enough to keep the texture intact.

Bisteca marsala is slightly less successful. On a recent visit, the steak was well-cooked yet unremarkable, begging for a more defined sear or crust. Perhaps not so surprisingly, the best part of the dish was the nest of fresh spaghetti resting underneath the meat, bearing a wonderfully chewy quality and a lightly peppery finish.

click to enlarge Zeppole and espresso make for a perfect finish at Dieci. - JACOB TYLER DUNN
Zeppole and espresso make for a perfect finish at Dieci.
Jacob Tyler Dunn
The most indulgent way to finish a meal at Dieci is with a platter of freshly fried zeppole. The deep-fried dough, accompanied with a small ramekin of amaretto anglaise, makes it pretty impossible to practice anything resembling moderation.

Moderation, in general, is hard to sustain at Dieci, where not even the fortress that is the Esplanade can keep you from finding your way to a bowl of fresh pasta. This is a hidden gem, in the most literal and rewarding sense.

2501 East Camelback Road, #24
Hours: Monday through Thursday,11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday,11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.; closed Sunday

Menu Highlights
Mussels pomodoro $11
Arancini $9
Baked rigatoni $16
Chicken Parmesan $16

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Patricia Escárcega was Phoenix New Times' food critic.