A few weeks ago, a series of rat-a-tat news events left Valley foodies gripping their collective forks and then poking themselves with them to make sure what they were reading was true: chef Claudio Urciuoli had parted ways with business partner and James Beard Award-winner Chris Bianco, chef Matt Taylor had left Noca, and finally, chef Claudio Urciuoli had replaced Matt Taylor at Noca.
Now that the dust has settled, I've had the chance to ask Noca owner Eliot Wexler a few questions about his new chef, what the change means (and doesn't mean) for his restaurant, and what diners can expect to see on the menu.
Here's what he had to say:
LH: Why Claudio Urciuoli?
EW: Noca is an ingredient-driven restaurant, and whomever is the chef is a muse for our ingredients. Claudio takes the focus on ingredients seriously in his approach to cuisine, and most of the ingredients he uses are cultivated by someone he knows or has significant context to his style of cooking. He's from a coastal town in Italy, and the ocean and fish are his greatest loves. To turn him loose with the pristine seafood we source is exciting.
His background is very compelling to me as well. He was part of Larry Mandel's original crew at Il Fornaio in the early 90's, he worked for Sirio Maccioni at Le Cirque & Osteria Circo, Nancy Silverton at La Brea Bakery Cafe, Kimpton Hotel Group with Taggia, Prado at the Montelucia, and with Chris Bianco at Pizzeria Bianco, Pane Bianco, and Italian Restaurant.
LH: How do the two of you know each other?
EW: I've been friends with him since he came to town in 2004, when he first cooked for me out of the banquet kitchen of the Kimpton Hotel prior to the kitchen at Taggia being built.
LH: What's something not many people know about Urciuoli?
EW: Claudio brought the love of burrata to Phoenix menus back in 2004. Prior to his arrival, burrata was not in the market. You could say he started the addiction.
LH: What will change at Noca with Urciuoli on board?
EW: Claudio is the only person I know of who's worked with two of the preeminent bakers and pizzaiolas in the country, I am installing an oven for him to bake bread and pizza for Noca and Nocawich. He's already started tinkering with doughs for our bread service. We've always been serious about our pasta program, and with Claudio, we will ultimately expand our offerings to eight pastas. Claudio has put a dedicated pasta maker in place, and our selections will be a mix of handmade, extruded, and artisanal pastas from Italy. There is a tremendous benefit from having an Italian born chef heading our pasta program. There's a difference in Italian-inspired to true Italian, and our pastas will reflect that. I expect that we will have a pasta-tasting menu with some regularity, as well.
LH: What won't change?
EW: Our lobster roll on Wednesday, the patty melt on Tuesday night, wagyu pastrami -- the Sunday Simple Supper themes will adjust, but Fried Chicken Night on the last Sunday of every month will not (with all the Southern cookbooks I've added to my collection when Matty was here, I've found a process that may be our best yet). We are not looking to change the stuff that our guests and I have enjoyed.
LH: You've mentioned Urciuoli has cooked at your home several times. What's that experience like?
EW: He would cook and teach me dishes from his region. I dig his controne bean soup, so that was usually in the mix. He loves his spot prawns and pasta. We really got into doing tacos (duck breast, ribeye, fish) on Mondays with roasted salsas, beans, and guac -- utilizing some great spices from Le Sanctuaire. His Mexican food is great from the many family meals made by the kitchen crews that he's been a part of.
LH: Will Nocawich change as well?
EW: The base of Nocawich will remain constant because the creative force behind it has been my sous chef, Luis Arellano, but Claudio will expand it by baking breads for our sandwiches, and we'll offer more salads, pastas, and, very soon, pizzas. Claudio was a part of expanding La Brea Bakery Cafe into the airports, so I am pleased to have him with us for our pending expansion into Sky Harbor.
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LH: When can Noca diners expect to start tasting Urciuoli's food?
EW: With the arrival of our Italian pantry last week, his food is in full bloom, and our bread service should be produced in house within the next day or two with Nocawich bread soon to follow.
I am giving him the canvas and palette that we have at Noca, and over the last week, he's added many of his "colors" -- and so we begin.