Thursday, September 18, 2014

Cuoco Pazzo

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Cuoco Pazzo

Chef Peter DeRuvo and Mario Rana Jr.’s seasonal Roman-style dishes bring fresh flair to Old Town Scottsdale.

Have you ever known a couple that seems to have nothing in common, and you wonder how they ever got together? That’s what I thought when I heard Chef Peter DeRuvo – who made a name for himself at Sassi in North Scottsdale – had partnered with Mario Rana Jr., who runs Mad Chef Gastropub in Ahwatukee Foothills with his father, Mario Rana Sr. Not only are the eateries geographically at opposite ends of the Valley, their reputations are not exactly in line (Sassi serves southern Italian cuisine in a swank, sprawling villa; Mad Chef dishes American pub-grub in a cozier setting).


DeRuvo and Rana’s venture, Cuoco Pazzo, opened in Old Town Scottsdale in October. The moniker translates to “crazy cook” (or “mad chef”). But there’s nothing overtly wacky going on here – unless your perception of Italian cuisine simply must include lasagna. The absence of that family-style favorite on the Cuoco Pazzo menu was apparently too nouveau for one hapless couple, who promptly beat a retreat from their table – probably to the nearest Olive Garden.

Instead, what you get is lighter, seasonal Roman-style fare with a few surprises. DeRuvo – who lived in Tuscany for two years – presents a fine balance of complex flavors gleaned from simple ingredients, many of which are locally sourced. Caveat: The menu changes regularly and seasonally, so it will be substantially different come spring.

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If you try only one thing here, make it the grande antipasti misti ($25). I’ve never had an antipasti plate anywhere near as artistic or outstanding as this one. Two could easily split it for a light meal. The cornucopia of delights features a variety of top-quality cheeses and charcuterie, including some remarkable house-made pickled beef tongue; pickled vegetables (including tasty raw pickled potatoes); and a smattering of spiced olives, jams and crostini.

Another pleasing eye-opener was marinated grilled squid ($13), with slivered rings served cold atop a lentil ragu and marinated cherry tomatoes. Fresh flat-leaf parsley and celery heart added an herbal kick, making it more salad-like.

For hot appetizers, I was wild about petite Venus clams and spicy Italian sausage ($15) in a broth with tomatoes, herbs, garlic, broccoli rabe and fiery local red chiles. Creamy mascarpone polenta ($13) with truffled wild mushrooms was also a nice start, thanks to a light touch with the truffle oil. I can’t say the same for the funghi pizza ($12), which was doused with the stuff. Beef heart ($11) had an intense flavor, almost like super-beef, so if you like that, you’ll love this. Look for other offal on specials and at the bar for “felice hour” (happy hour).

Pizzettas and pastas are primo. Other than the failed funghi, the pies are phenomenal, thanks to Old World-style thin crusts baked over wood in a stone oven and restrained toppings. I half-expected a mountain of meat on the carne pizzetta ($13), but farm-fresh arugula and bright tomato sauce complemented wisp-thin salumi and prosciutto.

House-made pasta is the best thing going here, thanks to superb flavor combinations and lovely noodles. Black tagliolini, with rich, thin, jet-black strips colored with cuttlefish ink in a lightly tangy tomato sauce jam-packed with seafood, was a bargain at $20. Nonna’s ravioli ($17) were perfect pockets of ground chicken in a buttery broth. Cavatelli ($17) were covered in insanely delicious, thick marinara and topped with velvety, addictive meatballs of veal, pork and beef.

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Secondi, or entreés, were generally disappointing. Pesce del giorno (whole market fish, $41), was drowned in lemon and suffered from spongy, flavorless flesh. The Tender Belly pork chop ($21) was dry and tough, and its pumpkin side dish was bland. Crispy half duck ($27) tasted gamey.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions, because menu descriptions can be misleading. House cured guanciale ($7) was actually braised escarole dotted with bits of the cured meat, and would have been lip-smacking had someone not showered it with salt. Pasta fagioli ($10) was ruined by an over-abundance of zucchini, not the winter vegetables promised. Orecchiette ($19) arrived with the expected escarole and sausage, but someone failed to mention the five varieties of mostly blow-your-face-off chile peppers spiking the dish (which added a fun dimension, but not everyone would agree).

And on our first visit, a chocolate “torte” on the menu was, in fact, a chocolate tart ($9). On the upside, the tart and all other desserts were scrumptious – I’d say among the best in town right now. Pecan crêpes ($9) with Oregon huckleberries and hazelnut-spiced honey was a delicate delight, and Chris’s caramelized applesauce cake ($9) – a slab of hearty apple cinnamon flavor topped with pistachio gelato and luscious Chantilly crème – was pure seasonal comfort.

The cherry on top of Cuoco Pazzo is the terrific drinks menu. Mixologist Jason Asher helped develop the cocktails, which include a long list of seasonal “cellos,” as in limoncello, orangecello, and so on. The wine list is small but smart, with a few Arizona wines. And someone here clearly loves beer – look for 21 domestic and international drafts, 14 beers by the can (several from Arizona) and 14 by the bottle, with microbrews dominating.

In a town where comfort food and steakhouses are king, Cuoco Pazzo is fresh and inspired, and you’d be nuts not to give the “crazy cook” a try.

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DETAILS
Cuoco Pazzo
Cuisine: Italian   
Address: 4175 N. Goldwater Blvd., Scottsdale
Phone: 480-265-9814 • Website: cuocopazzoaz.com
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday
Highlights: Grande antipasti misti ($25), grilled squid ($13), creamy mascarpone polenta ($13), Venus clams and spicy Italian sausage ($15), carne wood-oven pizzetta ($13), black tagliolini ($20), Nonna’s ravioli ($17), cavatelli with meatball ($17), pecan crêpes ($9), Chris’s caramelized applesauce cake ($9).

 

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