Cafe Reviews

Virtu Honest Craft in Scottsdale: Simple, Exquisite Food

Virtù Honest Craft — one of the latest restaurants to join the crowded fine-dining scene in Old Town Scottsdale — is topping national magazines' must-visit lists, and last month, it snagged a semifinalist spot for a James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant in the Southwest. The reason is simple enough.

You might recall chef Gio Osso's name from his executive chef position at the now-defunct Estate House — but it's more likely you don't. Osso's latest venture is another story. Virtù practically screams that gimmicks are for a restaurant unconfident about its dishes. The clean, small space on the lower floor of Old Town's Bespoke Inn, a modest hotel that offers Virtù's brunch as a perk for staying the night, doesn't smack you in the face with kitschy or hip décor, nor does it rely on an obvious theme. It doesn't have to.

The modern, cozy space is unpretentious, almost homey. White walls, black furniture, a large mirror, and a few chalkboards are pretty much the extent of Virtù's décor. The glitziest part of the place is the bar, fully stocked with an impressive selection of colorful craft liquor bottles and shining barware. You could start with one of the many Italian wines on the menu, but passing on one of Kailee Gielgens' cocktails would be a big misstep.

Gielgens, like Osso, is constantly reinventing her menu with fresh, seasonal ingredients. You can expect unique and refreshing combinations, such as the mezcal, chile-infused Aquavit, and beet syrup in the Let the Beet Drop. And the Ice Queen features, among other things, rhubarb liqueur, a strawberry-white balsamic shrub, champagne foam, and cracked black pepper.

When ordering drinks, it becomes clear that you're supposed to have your appetizer and entrée selections picked out. Unfortunately, you may feel, as I did, rushed. And that's my one real complaint about Virtù: the service. For a restaurant that all but requires a reservation at least a week in advance, it'd be nice to have time to take it all in.

Service here can be hurried and aloof or relaxed, accommodating, and knowledgeable. Fortunately, it's easy to forget about the inconsistency once the exquisite, artful dishes arrive from the kitchen.

As you dig into a plate of creamy burrata, paired with roasted peppers, capers, olives, and crispy prosciutto, you'll instantly notice how each component on the plate can stand alone and be entirely satisfying — each piece is seasoned perfectly. When you put the elements of the appetizer together, it's like a symphony of sweet, smoky, and briny atop a crunchy, slightly charred, and sinfully buttery crostini that will linger in the back of your mind for days, weeks, even months to come.

That harmony moves to a study in contrast in the tartare duo — two small mason jars on a plate with a stack of freshly baked flatbread between them. On the light side, tuna tartare shows off a bright, citrus flavor from blood oranges and mild herbiness from fennel. The dark side wins out here by a slim margin, with steak and capers resting under preserved lemon crema for a heartier tartare.

Though the appetizers also feature a pleasing, but inessential, $12 beet salad with goat cheese, pepitas, and tart ice wine vinaigrette; grilled asparagus with a decadent foie gras Hollandaise, egg, and bacon candy; and tuna conserva, the one dish that you absolutely have to order is the grilled octopus. Octopus is rare on local menus, but it appears here twice, as an appetizer and on the squid ink linguine entrée.

The octopus appetizer, which also features lightly dressed arugula, lemon chickpeas, and a Calabrese chile butter for a bit of heat, is everything that's right with eating octopus. It certainly looks like a plate of tentacles, but the pleasing texture makes you forget reservations you had about octopus being rubbery. It's firm and supple and has a great char-grilled flavor.

Of the entrées, which improve upon what the first course shows to be an impressive framework, there are plentiful options for both meat and seafood lovers. The menu changes regularly, but standout options as this column went to press include smoked duck breast, pan-seared scallops, and seared ahi tuna.

The duck ditches all notions of gaminess, leaving you with a tender and moist portion of hearty, flavorful fowl accompanied by a Spanish mojo picon, which offsets the robust, dark poultry flavor with a bright, curry-like flavor. Similarly, the ahi tuna has none of the offensive ocean flavors that give fish a bad rep, especially in the Valley. The lightly seared tuna's meaty flavor seems more like a rare steak than a piece of fish. The dish is balanced with charred onion, oil-cured olives, a dark, sweet balsamic red onion jam, and a pasta called fregola, which is visually similar to Israeli couscous.

On any given night, Virtù also is likely to have fresh pasta. The aforementioned squid ink linguine seems to be a menu staple, and pasta del giorno dishes, like al dente spaghetti with a pork osso bucco tomato gravy, appear alongside meat-focused main dishes such as prosciutto-wrapped pork rib, seared branzino, and slow-roasted bone-in short ribs.

Surprisingly, the filet mignon — at $35, the most expensive item on the menu — was a miss. The tender, mocha-rubbed cut was delicious at first bite, but the experience flat-lined. It wasn't bad, by any means, but it certainly did not have the same cravable qualities Osso's other dishes seem to effortlessly carry. Understandably, it'd be silly not to have an excellent cut of beef on the menu for less adventurous diners, but if you want to experience the height of Virtù's capabilities, this definitely is not the main course to get.

Finishing up at Virtù, you'll find a hard decision on the dessert menu. You can pick spiced chai panna cotta or creamy, lightly tangy mascarpone ice cream, or you can go for the gusto after a lavish meal and get the dark, rich, and fudgy chocolate torte with peanut butter mousse, a treat so smooth and creamy, you'll wish you could order it by the bowlful.

The true success of Virtù comes from Osso's ability to create dishes that are a pleasure to just chew and chew — each bite bringing a new appreciation for the simple, perfect preparation and the flavor pairings he puts in each dish.

Not one dish, even from the dessert list, would be done justice by saying it melts in your mouth. Rather, you have to take each component apart in a visceral, exciting way. That, combined with the fusion of authentic Spanish, Italian, and other Mediterranean methods and flavors, makes for a dining experience so unique to the Valley that you'll want to explore the menu over and over again.

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Heather Hoch is a music, food, and arts writer based in Tucson. She enjoys soup, scotch, Electric Light Orchestra, and walking her dog, Frodo.
Contact: Heather Hoch