When a new spot opens in town, we can't wait to check it out — and let you know our initial impressions, share a few photos, and dish about some menu items. First Taste, as the name implies, is not a full-blown review, but instead a peek inside restaurants that have just opened, sampling a few items, and satisfying curiosities (yours and ours).
: Mora Italian : 5651 North Seventh Street
: Less than a month
: Modern Italian
Are you going to feel slightly overwhelmed the first time you step foot inside Mora Italian, chef Scott Conant's eagerly anticipated new Italian restaurant in uptown Phoenix?
Mora Italian is busy, youthful, loud, and even a little grand. It's hard to resist the urge to just stand there for a minute and gape at its color and spectacle, like some hapless tourist deposited in the middle of a big city square.
The ceilings, unfinished and industrial, are loftier than they appear from the outside. The open kitchen is so well-lit and well-configured, it looks like a movie director's idea of what a professional restaurant kitchen ought to look like. A team of young cooks move in swift, confident orchestration, and there always seems to be a server careening around the corner.
And if the kitchen is camera-ready, so too is the dining room, which features a focal wall with big, splashy, Italian-themed pop art, full of bright red color and cheeky allure.
Long, red tufted banquettes line the main room, which transitions effortlessly into an outdoor patio complete with greenery and a full bar. There is the vague clamor of pop music playing in the background, and it only takes a few moments to realize you're going to have to talk very loudly across the table to be heard.
It's a high-energy space that, a few weeks in, already feels entrenched on Seventh Street. You might never guess that the space, measuring somewhere in the neighborhood of 6,000 square feet, formerly housed the Phoenix headquarters of Planned Parenthood.
The restaurant is under the aegis of chef Scott Conant and restaurateur Stefano Fabbri, both familiar names in Phoenix and beyond. Fabbri is one of the restaurateurs behind metro Phoenix's well-loved Pomo Pizzeria Napoletana chain. Conant is a recognizable presence on Food Network shows, most notably Chopped, where he has made regular appearances on the show's panel of judges. Conant's sizable and high-profile restaurant empire, which includes much-lauded restaurants like Impero Caffè and Scarpetta, has spread westward in recent years. Mora Italian is Conant's first foray into the Phoenix market.
The concept has been described as a modern osteria, full of the casually refined Italian cooking that has earned the chef so much attention over the years. You are unlikely to find anything on the menu that is too far out of your comfort zone. The menu feels firmly steeped in the well-honed, tried-and-true dishes that have helped Conant-brand restaurants achieve success in other cities.
It's approachable, modern Italian cuisine. It's important to note that sometimes "approachable" is simply a more stolid, serious-sounding way of saying that the menu was designed to be crowd-pleasing and delicious.
The restaurant's sense of fun and youthfulness might be encapsulated best by one of the drinks on the cocktail menu: a rosé snow cone. It's a sort of pink adult slushie that tastes fine, but for all its fun, novelty and frivolity, it turns out to be a little too messy and forgettable in the end.
Bread, the much-loved and much-maligned foundational foodstuff of Italian cooking, is one of the major highlights of eating at Mora Italian.
Most noteworthy, the restaurant offers bread cart service, a fully loaded, heavy-looking cart that you'll spot being pushed around the restaurant by a smiling server. Options include country bread and stromboli, and there's all manner of spreads and accoutrements.
This is probably a cruel place to bring anyone who is currently in the grips of the Whole30 cleanse, or any other such carb-starved diet.
On a recent late-evening visit, a server recommended the focaccia di recco as a shareable starter. It's a highly regional, northwestern Italian-style focaccia that brings to mind an ultra-thin, wispier-looking cheese crisp. To inhale papery slips of bread and melted cheese off a round aluminum platter is a quintessentially Arizona eating experience, and a lifetime of eating cheese crisps will find you well-prepared for the task of devouring this dish.
Did Conant and his culinary team intentionally gift us something so decidedly specific and regional, yet also so familiar and comforting to Arizona natives? It doesn't really matter. The olive oil-scented scraps of bread, pasted together with stracchino cheese and enlivened with measured sprinklings of sea salt, is so deliciously irresistible, you won't care how or why the dish ended up on your plate.
Ricotta fritters, an antipasti, is another flavorful and well-devised starter. The cleanly fried croquettes are served split open, oozing a soft, lush cheese center, and served atop a fragrant muddle of spicy-sweet, summery peperonata.
The shareable antipasti that's already becoming associated with Mora Italian is the grilled octopus ceci. You've had a decent octopus salad before, maybe, but this one is extra-tender, and yet also pleasantly chewy. It's served in a spare salad of cured olives, mint, and chickpeas. The presence of bracing, invigorating herbs infuses everything on the plate with bright flavor.
From the "Pasta For the Soul" menu, there is cavatelli, slightly chewy, fresh, well-sealed bundles of pasta, served with earthy, succulent hunks of duck. The pasta is served in a salty, truffle-infused ragù that infuses the dish with buttery richness.
Pork Milanese, already a popular house entree, yields an extra-succulent, skillfully cooked pan-fried chop served with gravy-like brown butter on the side. It's a juicy, sizable slab of meat, and its richness plays well against spears of fresh, pleasantly bitter dandelion greens.
Dessert occupies its own menu at Mora Italian, and it's replete with homemade cakes and coffee and digestifs. On a recent evening, a server recommended the Mora Sundae, which features house-made sorbetto and a silky, warm vermouth zabaglione that you can drizzle over your sundae. It's topped with the restaurant's namesake berries.
The urban rustic Italian mode of cooking showcased at Mora Italian is smart and well-executed, a sizable achievement that reflects the expertise of the professional restaurateurs working behind the scenes.
Service can still be a little jittery — a server on a recent visit had to consult his notes in order to describe many dishes. But overall, dining here is friendly and full of satisfying turns. It might remind you of Fat Ox across town in Scottsdale, another high-energy spot turning out casual yet highly refined modern Italian cooking.
Can Mora Italian keep up the momentum? It seems likely. As for right now, come to Mora Italian in high spirits, or at least primed to get there. Prepare to talk over the swell of loud chatter, and even louder music. Perhaps start your Whole 30 cleanse on another day.
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