Chef, restaurateur, author, and TV personality Scott Conant describes his Phoenix concept as an updated osteria — or simple Italian restaurant. Now, Mora Italian is celebrating its two-year anniversary on Wednesday, February 27, with a discounted menu of fan favorites and more. Beginning at 4 p.m., guests can enjoy a cocktail hour with hand-selected wines, live music, a photo booth, and yes, sparklers. Dinner service follows with opportunities to meet Conant from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.
And why should you care?
Since its opening in 2017, Mora Italian has earned a reputation as an inviting neighborhood eatery and staple of the booming Seventh Street stretch. Its bright red sign almost calls to those exploring this culinary corridor. Plus, the award-winning pasta and other dishes have caught our attention over the past two years as well.
We wanted to figure out how Mora's level of execution is achieved — and maybe the secret to the signature pasta al pomodoro sauce. So we sat down with Conant for a flavorful conversation.
“I wanted to be a plumber," Conant says. "I went to a vocational school for high school, but I couldn’t get into the program because too many people had applied. So as a second choice, I chose culinary arts.”
When the opportunity finally opened to join the plumbing program, Conant remembers saying to his mother, “I don’t know where [culinary school] can go or where it could take me, but I know that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
As many now know, it would take him lots of places.
Conant went on to graduate from the Culinary Institute of America, and operated the kitchen of Italian restaurants like Il Toscanaccio, Chianti, and City Eatery in New York City before opening L’Impero in 2002. That last place earned him praise from the New York Times, Gourmet, and Food & Wine, as well as the James Beard Foundation. Conant would then open Alto and the critically acclaimed Scarpetta.
Conant quotes Leonardo da Vinci, and cites “Simplicity is the ultimate luxury” as a recurring theme. Conant says this is his starting point for learning, developing, and curating his craft. His cooking style can be defined as a balance between luxurious and honest homestyle food.
The pasta al pomodoro may be a good example of a dish that achieves this kind of harmony. Conant credits good cooking as the sum of its parts and with thoughtful technique. He uses fresh tomatoes, which are peeled, seeded, and strained of their juices. They're then put back in the sauce and cooked to specificity, then sprinkled with garlic-infused olive oil, and finished with fresh basil.
“All of those little things that seemingly don’t have a purpose do have a purpose," Conant says, "because it all adds up.”
He applies that same type of thoughtfulness when trying to administer a meaningful experience for his guests. “Food is only the follow-up to the service experience," he says, "and that service experience is what keeps people coming back again and again.”
With that perception, Conant strives to create a specific type of culture that he feels makes his restaurants successful. He describes looking for “an inherent sense of goodness” in his employees, regardless of their background or skill set, who help generate an environment of consideration, diligence, and inquisition that allow for evolution as a team.
Conant has also evolved since opening Scarpetta, even Mora Italian. He's more recently known for opening Masso Osteria in Las Vegas and Cellaio Steak in the New York Catskills region. He's authored cookbooks like New Italian Cooking, Bold Italian, and The Scarpetta Cookbook, and he is, of course, a judge on Food Network's Chopped.
However, Conant opens himself up to learning, as well as teaching. He emphasizes the power of exposing vulnerability. Conant recalls thinking about his team and says, “I don’t know [everything], but together we could know.”
At the end of the day, Conant remains focused on the health and happiness of his children, his family, and of course, his customers. “I’d rather make customers happy than have a ton of accolades that ultimately could or couldn’t bring people through the door,” he says.
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And next for Conant and Mora Italian? “We’re going to move forward and keep trying to make people happy," he says. "We’re going to continue to grow and evolve, and expand and make sure the guests leave happier than when they walked it.”
Conant is also releasing a new cookbook, Peace, Love, and Pasta, which is in the works and will include stories about his trials and triumphs in the kitchen.
These current and upcoming projects, as well as this week's anniversary celebration, usually evokes the same thought from Conant. “It’s for all of us to have a fun time and not take ourselves too seriously,” he says.
For more information, visit the Mora Italian website.