Cafe Reviews

Timo Fires Up Bread and Much More in Sunnyslope

There is nothing quite like good bread.

Golden and crusty and full of flavor, its aroma, especially when baking, can elicit excitement, instantly bringing us back to our childhoods.

And it is at Timo where this centuries-old symbol of sanctity and nourishment can be had in slices, torn from an evenly round and brown loaf and slathered with pesto or sweet apple butter; heartily crunched as foundations for bruschetta, flatbreads, and sandwiches; or used as warm, moist chunks for soaking juices from savored meals that ended too soon.

Baked fresh every morning in a wood-fired oven, the only means of cooking Timo employs, the bread alone is reason enough to visit this Sunnyslope wine bar, which opened in October. But it is not the only reason. Timo's relaxed, intimate atmosphere, stellar selection of wine and beer, and affordable dishes of Italian-inspired fare that won't have you going home hungry, ensure its rotation on your favorite restaurant playlist.

Timo — the name means thyme in Italian — comes courtesy of Heinrich Stasiuk, who also owns Brick, the gourmet pizzeria in downtown Phoenix's Arizona Center. Chef/co-owner Mercer Mohr, who currently is at Brick and previously was at Ken's Creekside in Sedona and the Four Seasons in San Francisco, oversees Timo's wine-friendly lunch and dinner menu (mimosa-friendly for weekend brunch), which features Spanish-style tapas, bruschetta, Napoletana flatbreads, sandwiches, and dishes for either sharing or keeping all to yourself. Erstwhile fans of South American wine bar Bomberos will appreciate that Stasiuk and Mohr have retained the roll-up glass garage doors facing Central Avenue and the sprawling, flora-filled patio out back while updating the interior to include an open bar and installing a custom-built oven in plain view of every seat in the house.

And it is the oven, with its orange, fiery light flickering from a half-moon opening, its flames reflecting from a steel exterior shell, that adds to the intimacy of Timo's snug but stylish interior, done up in tones of gray with shiny taupe tables, upholstered chairs and benches in chocolate brown and creamy white, and musical selection of new wave beats. By day, the oven's flames glow subtly in the corner, nearly outdone by a flood of natural light. But in the evenings, you would not be rude in asking a server to turn down the too-bright house lights to enjoy the fire's hypnotic radiance. Even the chef seems to understand this, and I have seen him pause from his wood-fired duties to do the dimming himself, to the expressed appreciation of diners.

Timo's atmosphere complements its menu of comforting, Italian-inspired dishes, most being sized specifically for sharing. The marinated lamb chops lead Timo's list of tapas, but better selections can be found in warm corn cakes topped with smoked salmon and dill, and iron skillets filled with roasted shrimp, made extra spicy thanks to harissa, a Tunisian hot chili sauce, or an outstanding creation of chewy escargot, spinach, and vibrant tomatoes warm and ready to be scooped onto pieces of crusty bread.

One of the most satisfying small plates is the foie gras and fig jam, both served in small bottles and perfect for spreading on Timo's bread. And when the last piece of bread is gone, you'll either ask your server for more to finish off the tiny bottles or, depending on the aggressiveness of your personality, you'll hijack it for yourself, asking your server to package the delicacies to go. (Apologies to my dining companions that evening.)

Another clear standout dish is the plate of cold roasted eggplant dip, juicy tomatoes, olives, and goat cheese served with slices of warm crostini. With each item on the platter as good as the next, it's easy to see why this dish is one of Timo's most popular.

As you might expect, the bread not only is a hardy accompaniment but a mainstay that helps elevate the flavor of each dish. Large, thick slices are laden with toppings such as spicy copa, roasted tomatoes, and sweet sliced apples with fig jam making for stellar selections of bruschetta.

As a crust in the Napoletana flatbreads, it is wonderfully crisp on the surface and light on the inside, making the pancetta with asparagus, roasted tomatoes, and shaved Parmesan flatbread good and the short rib, sweet potato, provolone, and banana pepper flatbread unforgettable.

If you are in the mood for a sandwich (and very hungry), the bread will arrive crunchy and warm, packed with fresh veggies, cheeses, and meats and served on a wood platter alongside an artfully scattered pile of chips. There is a homemade-sausage sandwich — augmented with melted provolone cheese, onions and peppers — that is a bit tricky to eat but worth the effort.

When the massive prosciutto, copa, and triple cream Brie hoagie arrives, its thick, golden bun sliced in two, the ingredients unable to fit neatly inside, you may easily convince yourself that you were hungrier than you thought or covet the idea of enjoying the remaining half for tomorrow's lunch.

Timo's fiery furnace does as good a job with specialty entrees as it does with its bread. The sizable slice of cheesy eggplant lasagna resting heavily in the middle of a chunky marinara sauce looks as if it may do you in. It doesn't. Deceptively light, it will be gone before you know it. There is a half-chicken, juicy and tender, with lemon and oregano and lightly kissed with green apple vinaigrette for a touch of sweetness. It is the same vinaigrette used in one of Timo's salad offerings and tossed with rocket greens (arugula), dried fruit, candied pecans, feta cheese, and pancetta bacon. Unfortunately, the bacon was missing from my order.

The short rib tajine that will keep you happy. When its namesake serving vessel is placed before you and the conical lid removed, the dish's meaty aroma is released, revealing a serving dish filled with luscious boneless braised short ribs with hints of ginger and lemon, served with thick, browned slices of potatoes and earthy vegetables. The dish's dreamy, rich broth is perfect for sopping up with bread.

Like the large, brass clock on the patio, service at Timo is reliable, though expediency is of less importance here; servers are more focused on a relaxed, enjoyable experience. In fact, the only swift movements come from the chef manning Timo's oven.

On a busy night, the best seats in the house are at the bar, where, with wine glass in hand, one can watch an interplay of instruments — tongs, poles, shovels — utilized in a choreography of tempered chaos as this one-man show works wood-fired magic on an array of dishes traveling in and out of the fiery hole, which just that morning slowly baked the bread for the day's consumption.

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Laura Hahnefeld
Contact: Laura Hahnefeld