How do you say "wildfire" in Italian?
I can't tell you, but that's the idea I get when I think of the incredible buzz about Pizza A Metro, a fantastic new Italian restaurant in Central Phoenix that's recently jumped to the top of my list of hidden gems in town.
Trust me, it won't stay hidden for long.
Honestly, I don't think I've ever gotten so many recommendations to check out a single restaurant in such a short period of time. A couple of friends did some early scouting, and I could listen to them rave about delicious pastas and wood-fired pizzas only for so long before I gave in to my cravings and checked the place out last month. A few days later, an anonymous reader left a voicemail promising that a visit to Pizza A Metro would be worth my while. One of my favorite hard-to-impress foodie pals mentioned that he'd also been there recently and found it pretty tasty. And not long before I sat down to write this column, yet another friend e-mailed to share the lowdown on this unlikely little spot in her neighborhood.
I can take a hint, people — and I couldn't agree with you more.
This is the kind of place you could drive past a zillion times and not notice, in a Circle K strip mall on Thomas Road, just a few blocks east of I-17. If you're heading there from the east, you won't see it until you've almost passed it, so look for a small neon "Pizza" sign directing you to the right. I imagine this space must've housed a number of pizza joints over the years, as the sign looks pretty weathered.
Pizza A Metro, though, is just six months old. Owner Maurizio Benforte, a native of Sorrento, Italy, tells me it's his first restaurant.
"Wow, what a natural," I think to myself.
Then he explains that it's his first business in the States — that he owned a restaurant in his hometown for years before moving to the U.S. five years ago.
Okay, that makes more sense. Benforte's scrumptious menu, his enthusiastic, welcoming treatment of customers, his tireless work ethic (over a number of visits, I witnessed him single-handedly wait on customers, bus tables, hand over takeout orders, answer the phone, and even make delivery runs, with one or two employees busy in the kitchen) — it's all evidence that this guy's a pro. This fall, he plans to open a second and considerably larger restaurant, Amarone, at 90th Street and Via Linda, in North Scottsdale.
One reason he decided to move to the States was the comparative ease of opening a business here — something I've heard from other local Italian entrepreneurs.
"You don't have a big profit in Italy," Benforte says. "In America, people go out to eat a few times a week, but in Italy, it's maybe once a month."
An even bigger reason was his wife, an American citizen. She has a career outside the restaurant industry, but she's still made her mark on Pizza A Metro, from the colorful seaside mural that takes up an entire wall, to cute hand-painted dishware depicting olives and birds and flowers.
The first thing I splurged on here was pizza, available in three sizes: small (a generous personal pie, as big as the plate it's served on), regular, and "metro." The restaurant's name means pizza by the meter, and you can really get it — the metro pizza is about 39 inches. I've seen subs by the foot before, but a meter-long pie is truly a sight to behold.
The crust was great — thin and crisp, with slightly chewy edges. The wood-fired oven added a touch of charring and a great smoky flavor. I sampled a few combinations of toppings, and each was delicious, with delicately sweet tomato sauce and gooey blobs of fresh mozzarella. One was topped with meaty slices of sausage and broccoli florets (the menu called for rapini, though), while another had flavorful pieces of meatball. My favorite was the "Frescolina," with paper-thin prosciutto draped over the pie, and fresh arugula scattered on top.
Among several antipasti, I enjoyed a simple mixed-greens salad with red wine vinaigrette, as well as a standard Caesar salad with Romaine and Parmesan. My only quibble with the first one was the tomatoes — they weren't quite ripe enough that day. The "Antipasto della Casa" was an eye-catching assortment of roasted yellow peppers, black olives, mushrooms, eggplant, prosciutto, and slices of tomato topped with diced fresh mozzarella. And grilled calamari, served with lemon wedges and a pile of salad, was fresh and tender.
I'd say that calamari was my favorite appetizer, but I'm torn. Every order comes with a freebie plate of hot-out-of-the-oven flatbread, sliced into strips and served with a bowl of outstanding caponata (caramelized onions, eggplant, olives, capers, and celery). It's a joy to nibble at, the kind of thing you could easily fill up on before your order's even ready. But on the bright side, if you have to take home leftovers, you'll be happy to find food from Pizza A Metro in your fridge.
All four of the secondi were chicken dishes, so I sampled pollo saltimbocca. While the chicken breast was succulent, topped with prosciutto and mozzarella, the sauce was a touch salty, which overwhelmed the flavor of sage. However, its side of perfectly al dente penne was smothered with fragrant, well-balanced tomato sauce, with just enough black pepper to give it some kick.
Other pastas were just as satisfying. Linguine carbonara, tossed with velvety cream sauce, plenty of bacon, and fresh Parmesan, was cooked just right. And spaghetti con salsiccia stood out, thanks to marinara kissed with white wine. The wine made the mix of yellow peppers, mushrooms, and onions taste brighter, and was a tangy counterpoint to herby Italian sausage.
Four of the pastas were homemade, and gnocchi got my vote for most ethereal. How to explain the incredible lightness of these delicate dumplings? Biting into them was such a wonderful sensation that I kept eating well after I was full. The pink vodka sauce was great, too — tomatoey tanginess tempered with sweet, buttery cream.
Meanwhile, cheese ravioli were blanketed in savory Bolognese sauce that I wanted to slurp up like soup. These dishes came with a choice of sauce, so I enjoyed the same vodka sauce over moist veal cannelloni, filled with a blend of ground veal and ricotta. And the lasagna, a long, tender strip of fresh pasta layered upon itself, was filled with Bolognese and garnished with a couple splashes of marinara.
Creamy, almost fluffy homemade tiramisu was one reason to order dessert, while crunchy cannoli, oozing with creamy filling, was the other. Who needs more than that to finish dinner with a smile? Not me. To be fair, though, I was smiling from my first taste of caponata.
No wonder this place is such a word-of-mouth sensation.