I was not looking forward to eating at Mora Italian.
“Oh great, another New York City chef has opened another satellite restaurant in a distant city,” the skeptic in me whispered. He’ll half-ass his way to a third vacation home and I’ll get a third-rate meal.
And then I took my first few bites.
The rustic food of Scott Conant’s Mora displays rare finesse and bright flavors. Conant and executive chef Ryan Morrison produce food with the lightness that all great Italian food has (excepting cream-and-butter regions north). But their Italian blazes its own path. Mora lacks Italian standbys like cacio e pepe; the menu lists few Italian-American red-sauce greatest hits. For Conant, what has been done is a starting point.
Mora’s open kitchen knows Italian ingredients, traditions, and flavor combinations, respects them, and uses them as a launch pad. Salads are innovative. His best pastas are original, like nothing you’ll taste down the road or even across the country.
Conant moved to Scottsdale with his family last year. He’s best known for appearances on Top Chef, Chopped, and other food TV, where he has developed something of a crusty reputation for, one, bitching about raw onions. But Conant isn’t the emotionless square many viewers believe him to be. He first cooked his way onto the national stage in 2002 after opening L’Impero in New York, scoring a James Beard Award. The innovative spirit that powered him to success in the world’s harshest restaurant market has not waned. Mora is a unique spot, a fresh addition to the Valley foodscape.
Burrata, for one, tends to bring the same creamy bite everywhere. Not at Mora.
Somehow, burrata (mozzarella filled with curds and cream) on a pea heap is a master class in textures. Sugar snap, English, and snow peas — as well as pea shoots — each pop, but differently, complemented by radish shavings, pomegranate seeds, and coarse salt. The burrata itself melts on your tongue, a foil to all the layers of gentle snap. Ropy sea asparagus (“edible kelp,” a server explains) offers salinity that binds the plate’s disparate components. Flavors are clean and light, wildly vegetal, pretty damn magnifico.
And that’s just the appetizer.
No other starter can possibly live up to the burrata, one of the best vegetarian dishes I have ever had. The bread quartet is lackluster, and could have done with more soulful focaccia and ciabatta, though a dope roasted garlic dip almost hides that. Scallop crudo is pleasant once you fork off the rock salt that whipsaws the raw bivalves. Melon salad is surprisingly fantastic, with creamy emulsified red wine vinaigrette and some crunch from pistachios and crispy prosciutto. As is often the case, a kale salad is pretty formulaic and forgettable.
What is not formulaic and forgettable is Mora’s space. Ceilings sweep high above garish poppy-red upholstered seats, conversation carrying, epic tunes straddling the decades. Wall art is lighthearted and pop-flavored. From seats by the open kitchen to a sleek patio fronting busy Seventh Street, the room presents a series of themes: kitchen, dining room, library, bar, porch.
Often, talking to a server feels forced, like you’re both playing parts in a movie. The interaction at Mora feels natural, almost as if you’re talking to a friend. Servers seem truly enthused to chat up diners about sea asparagus, pasta options, or a second drink.
Chris Carter, Mora’s general manager, helms the drink program. Like Mora’s food, the restaurant’s best cocktails tend to be light and bracing. A vodka cocktail called Bee & the Basil leads with cucumber and basil. Sangria bursts with fizz and dark fruit flavors, including blackberry and passionfruit. An unexpected favorite was the Buffalo Rassa, made with Fernet-Branca, an Italian amaro. Amari (amaro plural) are pre- and post-meal liqueurs crafted with roots, barks, peels, spices, and herbs. Fernet tastes like toothpaste and tree roots and may be the most vile amaro made in the whole multi-millennia tradition of them. But this libation tames Fernet with bourbon, oregano liqueur, and strawberry purée, yielding a lush cocktail. Straight amari range from Fernet to Amaro Montenegro (orange dream). Roll the dice and sample three pours from the esoteric amari list.
If you want a sure thing, order pasta. Mora’s is homemade. Like most high-end pasta spots, Mora uses an Italian-made machine to extrude noodles impossible to shape by hand. Out of the extruder, slowly, come curvaceous pastas with names like squid ink fusilli and torchetti.
Shaped like torches, torchetti have a blast of mushroom-and-sausage flavor. Water from rehydrating porcini mushrooms is reused in the pasta’s base sauce, giving the noodles umami depth. Even better than torchetti were gnudi, soft orbs shaped from ricotta and mascarpone. Crisp guanciale (pork cheek) tops the gnudi. Butter-poached lobster and concentrated tomatoes give the gnudi their trademark Mora lightness. My wife said she would taste a single gnudo. She finished her whole plate.
As good as Mora is, there are inconsistencies. Lamb loin, rubbed with smoked paprika and cayenne, was undercooked. The artichoke purée lacked flavor and for a minute, I — an artichoke fiend — thought the pool under my lamb was of some kind of white bean.
Another inconsistency is that brunch, while solid, was not on dinner’s level. Pizza with pancetta and potatoes was sparsely topped and a little dense, more flatbread than ’za. A frittata had the airiness of a soufflé, which felt odd for an egg preparation so rustic, and lacked the slap-your-face-sideways flavor I had come to expect at Mora. Pistachio muffins, though, were kelly green with chopped pistachios and pistachio paste — and were downright glorious. And somehow, so were roasted fingerling potatoes. The chef poaches the potatoes in heavily salted water with rosemary and garlic, then fries them with more garlic and rosemary before showering on Grana Padano cheese. Simple yet stellar.
The thing about Mora is that the great dishes are so explosive that you forget the odd dud. Orata, a white fish, is roasted off the bone in olive oil. Served headless, the fish had crisp skin and tender, vivacious flesh. It was cooked beautifully. Fregola (couscous-like Sardinian “pasta”) under the orata absorbs its juices, each forkful honed by citrus (from grapefruit, grilled lemon) and drops of basil oil ornamenting the plate.
For dessert, don’t miss the budino, an Italian custard that has crept onto Italian menus across the country. Custard on the bottom, chocolate feuilletine (a crunchy topping like crumbled ice cream cone) on top, all you can taste is caramel that rolls and rolls even after the valet has fetched your car.
Mora would be a top-notch Italian restaurant in any city, Phoenix or New York or Rome. A few minor quibbles should do little to dim the excitement of a promising fact: Conant plans to open more eateries in the Valley. For that, grazie mille.
5651 North Seventh Street, Phoenix
Hours: 4 to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday; 4 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
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Melon salad $14
Ricotta and mascarpone gnudi $25
Whole roasted orata $29
Salted caramel budino $8