Metro Phoenix is home to an impressive concentration of talented Italian restaurateurs, chefs, and pizzaioli, and the roster of noteworthy Italian restaurants in the Valley only seems to be swelling. For proof, take a look at the Italian restaurant scene taking shape in the northwest Valley.
Two new stand-out Italian restaurants have opened in the “upper west side” of the Valley (as some locals have taken to calling it) in the past year, and they’re well worth the drive from anywhere in town.
Bottega Pizzeria Ristorante debuted last spring, taking over the space formerly occupied by the Glendale outpost of Pomo Pizzeria.
The team at Bottega includes owner Nick DiLello, a Milan-born entrepreneur with a background in the bridal industry, along with current executive chef Daniele Lombardo, who have centered the restaurant’s menu around wood-fired, Neapolitan-style pizza. The sprawling menu also offers a robust selection of fresh-made pasta dishes.
Bottega is tucked inside Arrowhead Ranch’s imposingly named Citadelle Plaza, an upscale suburban compound of med-spas, insurance offices, and restaurants. The restaurant is sleek and spacious, with floor-to-ceiling windows washing the dining room in natural light. Italian pop music plays softly over the house speakers, and service is generally breezy and cheerful. Bottega also boasts an outdoor patio and bar with plenty of TVs and bar seating. On game nights, the outdoor bar can take on the loose, loud ambience of a neighborhood sports bar.
Antipasti includes familiar dishes like bruschetta and caprese salad. A more compelling starter, though, is the house carpaccio. Delicately marbled raw beef is sliced into supple, paper-thin rounds, their decadent, buttery quality smartly offset by a peppery arugula salad. Less memorable is the fritto misto — on a recent visit, the deep-fried shrimp and baby squid lacked crispiness and the flavor was slightly bland.
All the pasta is made in-house, and the selection veers toward classic northern Italian standards like tagliatelle Bolognese and tortellini in light cream sauce. You’ll also find less familiar hand-rolled pastas like trofie with pesto — at Bottega, the thin, slightly twisty pasta is made by slicing pasta dough into short strips and rolling the dough between your hands, as if you were trying to warm them up. On a recent visit, the trofie had a pleasant chewy bite, but it was bathed in a somewhat flat pesto cream sauce.
A better option is the strozzapreti norcina: the long, thin, hand-rolled pasta is bolstered by juicy, sweet-savory hunks of pork sausage and meaty porcini mushrooms. The dish’s real calling card, though, is its exceptionally rich and creamy cognac cream sauce.
Pasta aside, the main attraction at Bottega is its wood-fired pizza. Arguably, the best seats in the house are the high-tops overlooking the restaurant’s open kitchen, which is anchored by its massive wood-fired oven. There you catch glimpses of the pizzaioli on duty, who work with conveyor-belt-like efficiency, skillfully stretching dough and shoveling pies in and out of the fire.
There are 14 pizzas on the menu, and I’ve yet to run into a middling one. Stand-outs include the Amalfi, a white pizza slicked with stretchy provola cheese and topped with crisped-up hunks of peppery soppressata and meaty cubes of fried eggplant. The Michelangelo pizza achieves a remarkable balance of flavor – buttery scraps of prosciutto meld with shaved parmigiano and the pizza’s faintly sweet tomato sauce. The pies here have a pleasantly chewy, puffy crust.
A few miles east of the Loop 101, not far from Bottega, you’ll run into Fabio On Fire, a pizzeria that opened last summer on Lake Pleasant Parkway in Peoria.
Fabio On Fire might sound a little like a steamy romance novel, but this unassuming strip mall restaurant is serious about making top-notch pizza. It’s the first brick-and-mortar space from Italian-born chef-owner Fabio Ceschetti, whose mobile, wood-fired pizza oven has become a fixture at private events and farmer’s markets. The catering side of the business is still active, but you no longer have to queue up at special events for a taste of the chef’s pies.
Service is notably warm and personable at Fabio On Fire, and the restaurant’s intimate dining room only compounds the sense that you’ve stumbled into the kind of friendly neighborhood spot where the staff is quick to remember your name.
Antipasti highlights include the bruschetta moderna -— thick-cut slices of ciabatta Pugliese layered with prosciutto, mascarpone, and hearty flakes of shaved parmigiana. Farro salad, another starter, is surprisingly sophisticated. The grains are tossed with golden raisins, pine nuts, and tendrils of roasted cabbage, a pleasing melange of sweet-savory flavor buoyed by a light drizzling of crème fraîche.
There’s a small pasta menu, which includes a simple yet exquisite lasagna layered with a tender and meaty Bolognese sauce. Even better, there’s homemade gnocchi in a classic basil pesto sauce — the dumplings are exceptionally tender, and soak up the lovely, fresh pesto beautifully.
But you probably came for the pizza. Similar to Bottega, the pizza at Fabio On Fire bear the hallmarks of traditional Neapolitan pizza-making: the pies are a little wet around the middle, yielding thin, elegantly floppy slices with tender crusts that beg to be eaten.
Highlights include the Capricciosia, layered with prosciutto and artichoke hearts, and brimming with the subtly marvelous flavors of San Marzano tomatoes and extra virgin olive oil. The Tarantina pizza marries sweet caramelized onions with spicy salami and the sublime funk of gorgonzola cheese. And the Diavola, with its exquisitely simple combo of tomato sauce, mozzarella, and spicy salami, is irresistible.
No visit to Fabio On Fire is complete without a trip to the restaurant’s small bakery case, which is stocked with a revolving selection of homemade Italian desserts. On one visit, I capped off my meal with a lovely, cream-filled Diplomatico puff pastry. There’s usually a robust assortment of buttery Italian cookies and biscotti on hand, too; you can take home a dozen for $5. That alone might be reason enough to visit Fabio On Fire.
Is the northwest Valley still suffering from a lack of locally owned neighborhood restaurants? No doubt. But Fabio On Fire and Bottega are carving out a niche for the type of casually refined neighborhood Italian restaurant that’s been missing from the area for too long.
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Bottega Pizzeria Ristorante. 19420 North 59th Avenue, Glendale; 623-777-1868.
Tuesday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; closed Monday.
Strozzapreti norcina $16.95
Fabio On Fire. 8275 West Lake Pleasant Parkway, #101, Peoria; 623-680-5385.
Tuesday through Thursday 3 to 9 p.m.; Friday through Sunday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.