This spring, the charms of restaurants have been highlighted by their absence: the warmth, rhythms, artistry, mealtime traditions, temporary escape, personal interactions, and other non-food elements woven into our dining-out culture. In March, restaurants closed to slow the spread of the pandemic. Now, many have reopened.
But the pandemic roils on. And while it does, our reviews will focus on takeout, though many of the non-food charms we miss will remain missing.
In recent weeks, we’ve run guides to reopened restaurants across town, pieces on the state of the industry, a list of African restaurants to support, a story on where to find a great Navajo mutton sandwich, and related content tailored to 2020 and our new age of eating. This space — the cafe review, now coming at you monthly — will remain a place for critical dives.
Only for now we won’t be eating inside of restaurants. Also, we’ll likely focus on a category of eateries per review rather than just one.
We relaunch Cafe reviews with a category: ambitious new Italian restaurants opened by familiar faces. The two evaluated here are Pizzería Virtù by Gio Osso (best known for Virtù Honest Craft) and The Americano by Stefano Fabbri (best known for Pomo Pizzeria Napoletana).
Shortly before the pandemic, Pizzería Virtù opened in the old Grazie space on Main Street in downtown Scottsdale. This step made sense for Osso. After moving to Arizona from New Jersey, Osso, in one of his first culinary gigs here, baked pizza in the wood-fired Grazie oven — the same oven he now helms at Pizzería Virtù.
Prior to opening, Osso made a pilgrimage to California for one-on-one instruction at the American branch of the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana. This is the official Neapolitan body that deems pizzerias “Neapolitan.” Before then, Osso had more familiarity with East Coast pizza styles.
You might be wondering: Does metro Phoenix really need another Neapolitan pizzeria? The Valley has a robust pizza landscape with plenty of solid Neapolitan options. Neapolitan, though, is just one style — one that eaters across the country have started to look beyond. But I would say the answer is “yes.” Even within the narrow guardrails of Neapolitan tradition, Osso brings something vital to our pizza scene.
What he brings is a creativity and erudition that makes for strong modern pizza — pizza that feels new, yet faithful to the austerity of the old Neapolitan style. For one, Osso bakes a white pie leanly splashed with green pesto like an abstract painting. This traditional basil pesto packs depth. The pizza sports a well-considered cheese blend, part stracchino, a sharp aged cheese that isn’t much of a melter, but that stands with that vibrant pesto. For molten goodness? Some added mozzarella.
Other pizzas have kindred small but smart touches. On a red pizza with lightly fiery soppressata, the tomato sauce gains a smidge of umami and heat from domestic ’nduja, creamy spreadable salumi with roots in Calabria, Italy, where Osso has family. On another pie, Osso cuts the heft of sausage with tangy balsamic onions. These are minimal touches, but in a famously quiet pizza style, they can have real volume.
Pizzería Virtù didn’t have all its pizzas available for takeout when I took out. Osso wasn’t offering the baked pastas I mentioned in a piece published before his February opening. But he did have cocktails, four portions per jar. And as at Virtù Honest Craft, they have high quality and a pleasant strangeness.
A cocktail called Miele Liscio married, against all odds, tequila, grappa, amaretto, and honey. This was an eye-opening combination, sweet but intricate, a liquid zap flashing notes of intense flowers, almond, grape musk, and the vegetal perfume of agave. The flavors came briefly, the way numbers flash on a shuffled deck of cards.
At Pizzería Virtù, you get classic Neapolitan: soft puffy rim, soupy blade-thin center, delicate flavors — well made, if a little inconsistent in these crazy days. (One visit, a pizza was left on for slightly too long, leading to more of a crunch.) Osso’s chef-driven touches distinguish his pizzeria. The more he embraces them, the better Pizzería Virtù will be.
Now, we rumble north up the Loop 101 to The Americano. The building on Scottsdale Road shows, on one side, a bright mural. Lug open the front door. A slick-jacketed host awaits in an antechamber, idling before a wall of mounted, white-painted cooking vessels climbing to a lofty ceiling. The Americano oozes an opulence that feels very pre-pandemic. The way the industry has changed and will, one has to wonder how the role of such restaurants will shift.
On to the bag of takeaway food the host has passed. At The Americano, it’s largely steak, meat-centric dishes that lean Italian or American, pastas, and theatrical cocktails.
Beefy options are all you’d want from a steakhouse (though they lack in-state sourcing). Steak frites offer thickly cut skirt steak from Niman Ranch. A hard crust gives way to a soft, lightly rose-brown interior, the cut, which may rotate away from skirt depending on the day, resting in a shallow pool of its juices. Thin fries are on point and gain gravity from garlic aioli. Meatballs are arguably the star of the short takeaway menu. They’re made partly from American wagyu from Colorado. Flash seared and then inched to doneness via sous vide, they have a stunning intensity and tenderness, soft as ice cream.
Many Pomo regulars dig Fabbri’s pastas. They are better at The Americano. Fluted cylinders of garganelli have elegant thinness but keep some chew. They’re cooked capably, the quill-pointed noodles slick with summer pesto. This pesto is worlds apart from the classical version at Pizzeria Virtu. Fabbri doctors his fair green paste with nontraditional ingredients, like pea tendrils and Castelvetrano olives. His pesto is a touch salty but enjoyable with the rolled pasta shape.
Other notable dishes include a chicken sandwich, nicely fried. Pickled fennel under the top bun is ridiculously tasty; this sandwich would be one of the Valley’s greats if there were two or three times as much fennel. Also, don’t miss mac and cheese prepared in a style that cribs from the Roman staple cacio e pepe. It’s a side, so you don’t pay much for a sizable portion loaded with pecorino, Parmesan, and fontina.
The verdicts: These two are worth a takeout visit. But will a glitzy modern steakhouse thrive in our future, post-COVID-19 age? Will people pay $18 for chef-driven Neapolitan pizza? We have to get past the pandemic first to answer these questions and others. In time, we’ll see.
Note: As of the time of writing, both restaurants still offered food for takeout. That could change, so please check restaurant websites or social media accounts before getting hyped for a drive and dinner.
6925 East Main Street, Scottsdale
Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday
Orto salad $14
Miele Liscio (for a jar serving four) $25
17797 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale
Hours: 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday
Wagyu meatball $14
Chick filetto $16
Garganelli verde $18
Steak and frites $33
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