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May, 2012, Page 135
Photos by Richard Maack
After several chef and menu changes, this Tuscan fine-dining fortress has relaxed its style but not its standards or its penchant for culinary surprises.
Since Sassi opened in 2004, the Arizona restaurant scene has undergone a sea change: High-end, white-tablecloth dining has been largely phased out in favor of more casual experiences. At the same time, customer appreciation for superb food has grown.
Sassi, set in a spectacular Old World Italian-style mansion near the base of Pinnacle Peak in north Scottsdale’s Troon neighborhood, has perpetually excelled at polished dining emphasizing artisanal ingredients. The 250-seat restaurant on a 6-acre parcel of sumptuous Sonoran desert cost $10 million to build. The extravagant environs include stone walls, tile accents, a fountain courtyard and a warren of European-rich rooms posh in gleaming woods, arched doorways, elaborate rugs and chandeliers. Charcuterie and pastas are homemade, and there’s even a food glossary available, to explain menu terms like acqua pazza (“crazy water,” or salty broth), used to create a nightly special of halibut in garlicky, chile-kissed tomato-seafood broth ($30).
In keeping with the times, however, today’s Sassi is simplified. As I perused the menu recently for the first time in several years, I found more staples than stunners – for example, baked rigatoni studded with chunks of braised beef short rib, mushrooms and sweet Boschetto cheese ($19), and New York strip over shiitakes and arugula salad ($36).
Yet after a few bites, I wasn’t pining for the experimental Sassi of yore. The AAA Four Diamond restaurant is still worthy of its crown.
three cheese manicotti
Three chefs have led the kitchen in Sassi’s eight-year history: Mario Batali disciple Wade Moises, Peter DeRuvo, and Christopher Nicosia, who took over the reins in 2010. With each successive chef came a more traditional menu, but there’s no denying Nicosia is an expert with the refined-rustic flavors of Italy. He does an equally excellent job with home-style plates like pappardelle verde – hand-made spinach pasta topped with spicy pork ragu, herbed ricotta and pecorino ($25) – as he does with demanding recipes like branzino (Mediterranean black bass), roasted to moist meatiness and served tail-on with blackened skin sprinkled with herbs alongside roasted broccoli ($32). We squeeze roasted lemon over the fish, and the flavors positively sing.
One welcome change has come in the service. Throughout Sassi’s earlier days, I often felt like I needed to sit up extra straight when the server approached. With the new Sassi, however, it’s clear the staff enjoys the more casual mood as much as I do. Seeing our delight in eating the octopus ($12) – presented as big, fat, fun tentacles and marinated, wood-grilled steaks bathed in zingy chile vinaigrette, then piled with warm olives and roasted lemons – my server joked that she hoped we would enjoy the “sea creature.”
The antipasto list has been halved, but preparations remain some of the best in town. The obligatory mussels are bathed in white wine, garlic, tomatoes and chiles, plus an unexpected hit of mint and orange-infused olive oil ($15). Prosciutto di Parma didn’t interest me, until my server recommended it wrapped around some of the biggest, most tender fried asparagus ($12) I’ve ever enjoyed.
Depending on where you sit – the garden terrace, in view of the kitchen, in the main dining room, or the library – Sassi still feels like a new, special restaurant every time. The bar is a great place for a spiedino di manzo, a skewer of wood-grilled porcini-rubbed steak and grilled mushrooms ($10), perfect with a martini of house-made limoncello and fresh lemonade ($12), plus a backdrop of live music on weekends. Nearly year-round, some of the most coveted seating is on the patio, gazing over the lights of Scottsdale twinkling in the distance.
Wood-grilled pork chop batutta is uncomplicated with pepperonata, chiles, olives and capers ($28), yet it tastes luxurious in this setting, as does boneless half chicken, plainly wood grilled but exceptionally juicy, teamed with roasted parsnips and turnips and a dollop of pine nut-sage pesto ($25).
Portions are generous, but it’s hard to resist adding sides like earthy, gently browned Brussels sprouts dotted with salty pancetta and Parmigiano Reggiano ($8), or sweet manicotti dressed with creamy ricotta and butternut squash, prosciutto and pistachios in a silky bath of sage brown butter ($10).
ricotta fritters with a trio of creams
Despite the much more mainstream menu, the Sassi crew is reintroducing the adventurous spirit, too. In the spring, Nicosia added a new, frequently changing menu called “Enoteca,” available only on Thursday nights. It features small plates of such authentic Southern Italian tastes as risotto with squid ink-braised cuttlefish ($12), or eggs with anchovy butter on fettunta, a tantalizing nibble of gently fried egg atop a piece of grilled, buttered garlic bread ($8). Other weekly specials may include crispy sweetbreads dotted with wild mushrooms in Marsala glaze ($14), or roasted figs with gorgonzola dolce, speck and walnuts ($8) – a luxurious layering of sweet, salty, gooey, chewy and crunchy.
Dessert presents more proof that Sassi still shines. Selections come with suggested wine pairings, like ricotta fritters ($8), dusted with cinnamon sugar with clouds of lemon curd, pistachio cream, chocolate and salted caramel cream – perfect with a Carlo Hauner Malvasia della Lipari sweet wine.
Trends change, but bravo to Sassi for capturing our modern, casual mood without losing its one-of-a-kind sparkle.
: 10455 E. Pinnacle Peak Pkwy., Scottsdale
: Tu-Su, 5:30 to closing
: pappardelle verde ($25), branzino ($32), octopus ($12), boneless half chicken ($25)
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