Armato was born and raised in Chicago, where he grew up on plenty of hot dogs and Italian beef sandwiches. His father's love for cooking and his mother's family recipes inspired Armato to dig deeper into the local food scene and into the international cuisines available on his doorstep.
A career in voice acting for commercials, cartoons, and video games took him to Los Angeles where he delved into the world of cooking with California's bounty of fresh ingredients. A return to Chicago later in life led to frequent business trips to China, Japan, and Europe. His time spent abroad grew Armato's appreciation of Japanese food in particular, which he still seeks out often today.
After bouncing from Chicago to Baltimore and Boston, Armato and his family landed in Phoenix in 2010. He launched PHXfoodnerds, a community food discussion site modeled after a forum he'd been part of in Chicago, and his food writing led him to a year-long freelance gig with Phoenix Magazine before he became the dining critic at The Arizona Republic.
It was at the Republic where I met Armato. I quickly came to know him as someone with a wealth of knowledge about Phoenix food, which was not only extremely valuable to the team and those who read his articles, but inspiring to me, the new-to-Phoenix nightlife reporter.
As time went on, Armato and the Republic went separate ways, and a few years later, I joined the team at Phoenix New Times to run the food section. Now, the stars have aligned for Armato to share his quips on the pages of this newspaper. Ahead of his first review, Armato answered a few questions about his new monthly series.
About 20 years ago, I was traveling constantly for work, and I kept a journal to remember the restaurants I visited. My wife said her parents would love to hear about our adventures, and suggested I post the journal online. Shortly thereafter, “blog” entered the lexicon, and I rolled that writing into my first food blog, Skillet Doux, in 2005.
How did you get started in food writing? Give us a brief history.
I spent a number of years writing in a purely amateur, if voluminous, fashion, both for my blog and a pair of community food discussion sites — LTH Forum in Chicago, which I helped moderate, and PHXfoodnerds, which I launched when my family moved to Phoenix.
But with the advent of social media, the writing was on the wall. It was so easy to snap a quick photo and write a short caption rather than taking the time to compose a thoughtful post on a discussion board. So I pitched Phoenix Magazine on letting me write about some of the city’s lesser-known gems, in the hopes of reaching a larger audience.
I got my hands on the big bullhorn a year later, when Howard Seftel retired and the dining critic’s position opened up at The Arizona Republic. In a little over five years, I tried roughly 1,200 Valley restaurants, sampled over 12,000 dishes, and wrote more than 500 articles for the paper. I needed a break. So I took one. But after a couple of years on the sidelines, I started getting the itch again.
What makes the Phoenix food scene special?What makes it special are the incredibly unique foodways we have here in the Southwest — the unusual ingredients, the atypical growing seasons, the influence of indigenous foods, and the culture of Mexico, past and present. And while folks rightly poke fun at Phoenix for being a magnet city where almost everybody is from somewhere else, the resulting mix makes for a combination of tribes who cling fiercely to their hometown foods, and an unusual amount of cross-pollination between culinary traditions that don’t always have the chance to meet.
What makes it quirky is how the climate effectively turns a major metropolitan city into a seasonal resort town. How its residents aspire to live in a sophisticated, diverse dining scene, but never quite shake their meat and potatoes sensibilities. And how the public’s demand for better, more wholesome food collides with its desire for dinner to be cheap.
What makes it exciting is how the abundance of talented, creative food folks that call Phoenix home work their tails off to make great things happen in such an unusual and often difficult environment.
What do you hope to achieve with your reviews? What do you hope readers will take away from them?
Hopefully a lot more than whether a restaurant is good or bad. We’re surrounded by citizen critics, meaning we aren’t exactly hurting for opinions. The age of the newspaper critic as a monolith of dining authority is over, and I think that’s a good thing, because it frees up a critic to dig deeper with restaurant reviews.
Your friends can probably tell you whether or not you’re going to like a place. Nowadays, I see the critic’s role as a guide who can put what you’re experiencing into context, present cuisines and food cultures in ways you hadn’t considered, open up avenues you haven’t traveled, and help you more deeply appreciate what goes into each dish. The more we collectively understand food and restaurant culture, the more rewarding our dining scene will be for all of us, on both sides of the pass.
What differentiates a review from other types of food writing?
First and foremost, rigor. By that, I mean a review isn’t a glowing puff piece written after dropping in to try a few dishes, or attending a media event where the food is comped or the restaurant is paying you. In many ways, a dining critic is an anti-influencer. Both wield influence, but the critic’s earned trust comes from working in a thorough and ethical manner.
That means paying for everything, visiting a restaurant multiple times and trying most of the menu, booking reservations under false names, making every reasonable effort to fly under the radar as much as possible, and above all, writing with honesty and integrity. A review isn’t about boosting or bashing a place, though it can do either. It’s about offering as honest an assessment as possible.
What should readers expect from this new monthly review series?
A review, by definition, still needs to be a thoughtful, informed assessment of what does and doesn’t work at a restaurant. But I want to zoom out and spend a little more time putting restaurants into context — talking about how they fit into the dining scene and the greater community.
In my experience, every restaurant has a subplot. Why is a particular restaurant struggling to survive? What cultural forces have come together to give birth to a unique menu? What is the psychology behind why diners lose their minds over a particular spot? There’s so much more to the story than food, service, and atmosphere. And I’d like to spend a little more time exploring.
How do you pick which restaurants to review?
I'm looking for four things. First, there is nothing I love more than helping an unheralded gem find its audience. Second, I try to gauge reader interest. Instead of giving you what you want, I prefer to give you the thing you didn't realize you need. But sometimes, everybody is just dying to hear about a particular place, and I’m happy to oblige.
Third, we occasionally need a reality check. Hype can snowball quickly, and if I think the emperor has no clothes, I might not be able to resist saying so. And fourth, I’m looking for spots that will make for an entertaining, interesting read. I don’t want to just sit in judgment. I want to have a conversation. And the best way to do that is to pick a fascinating subject to talk about.
Beyond that, I want to try to show off all of the facets of our local restaurant scene. Different cuisines, different price points, different people, different stories. From $250-per-person French fine dining to $5 frybread at a roadside stand. From James Beard Award winners to immigrant refugees. They all have a role to play, one that is equally valuable and important. And I want my work to reflect that.