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Gwen Ashley Walters
March, 2013, Page 131
Photos by Richard Maack
Sweet potato pizza
Assembly line hipster-hangout or foodie haven? A new uptown pizza joint from the Postino folks is both.
There are two ways to look at Federal Pizza, the latest uptown restaurant from Craig DeMarco and Lauren Bailey of Postino and Windsor/Churn fame. The pessimist will see another Stepford eatery stamped with trademark hipster flourishes, where food plays third fiddle behind scene and tipple. The idealist will focus on the fun, historic-meets-happenin’ vibe encapsulated in the phrase stamped on the drive-through door: right place, right time. Depending upon the day and what I ordered, I can see both views.
No doubt, the Upward Projects restaurant group makes infill redevelopment relevant and hip. It started in 2001 with the opening of the original Postino wine bar – which since expanded to three locations – in a historic building that once housed the Arcadia post office. This go round, Federal Pizza occupies what once was the First Federal Savings & Loan building, designed by Alfred Newman Beadle, Phoenix’s revered American modernistic architect. The interior was gutted, but the building’s mid-century bones proudly remain.
An enclosed, tree-lined patio facing Central Avenue hints at the buzz you’ll find when you step through the back entrance. A row of orange vinyl booths separates the exhibition galley kitchen on one side from a long, butcher-block bar on the other. Retro table lamps warm the narrow, rectangular space, and eclectic tunes by artists ranging from the Kings of Leon to the Beach Boys ring out from a platoon of speakers. The staff seems to genuinely enjoy their job and each other, working as a team to make guests feel at home. It’s impossible not to feel upbeat or part of the cool crowd when dining here.
F & A Veg board
True to DeMarco and Bailey’s roots, imbibing is affordable and fun. Thanks to a new Arizona law, you can get a growler (64 ounces for $15, or $10/refill) or a chub (32 ounces for $11, or $8/refill) to go. Choose from more than a dozen craft draft beers – only $5 a pint or $7.50 a pitcher in-house – or a couple dozen bottled brews. A modest selection of wines by the glass or bottle includes a couple of Arizona vinos, including Dos Cabezas Red ($10/$30). Or try a flavored wine cooler ($8), a blend of house-made fruit syrups with sparkling Cava served in trendy glass bottles. Skip the Kool-Aid-tasting blackberry-rosemary version and instead swig refreshing grapefruit-ginger or sweet-tart strawberry-rhubarb.
So far so good: a groovy spot to sip and socialize with friends. But what about the food? Here’s where Pleasantville starts to fray, if ever so slightly. The good news is the menu fits on one page, yet is packed with enough variety that you could eat here weekly and not feel stuck in a rut. Appetizers, salads, sandwiches, creative sides and a handful of pastas support the main event: wood-fired pizzas designed by bread master MJ Coe.
One of two standouts on the appetizer list is the F & A Veg board ($11), a generous and somewhat unwieldy selection of wood-roasted vegetables, including a hunk of cauliflower and fennel, slender carrots, fingerling potatoes and garlicky broccolini, served with a bland version of Spanish Romesco sauce. I wish they’d retool the red pepper and almond sauce, giving it more of the sherry vinegar punch it needs, especially since it accompanies equally bland polenta sticks ($4) and Mister Mister ($10), a not-quite-successful take on fritto misto, lightly battered and under-seasoned fried vegetables. The other standout appetizer is corn coins ($5), an Italian spin on Mexican elote featuring a blistered ear of corn rolled in herbs and grated pecorino, cut into six or seven pieces for sharing.
Photos - From left: Inside Federal Pizza; Big Star pizza
Another bright spot is the Little Gem Caesar ($9), sporting fresh baby romaine and parsley leaves, dressed with just enough creamy lemon dressing and covered in a fluffy blanket of grated Parmesan. Lightly roasted Campari tomatoes with house-pulled mozzarella, basil and extra virgin olive oil ($10) would be memorable if the cheese had more flavor and wasn’t a little tough.
Pastas are passable. Hard to go too wrong with spaghetti and meatballs ($12) or ricotta ravioli with spinach and mushrooms ($11), but after one bite, you’ll instantly recognize there isn’t an Italian grandma in sight. On the other hand, I’d walk a mile for the porchetta sandwich ($10), crusty bread piled high with slices of herb-roasted pork loin, slivers of juicy pork belly, caramelized onions and lemon vinaigrette-dressed arugula. It may be the best thing on the menu.
Of the dozen designer pizzas ($11-$14), some work better on paper. The Brussels sprouts, pancetta and roasted garlic pizza, for example, is for die-hard mini-cabbage fans only. Beet and corn is another on-the-edge combination. Manifesto pizza – roasted cremini mushrooms, Schreiner’s sausage, dabs of goat cheese and slivers of fennel – and the meatball pizza sound great, but both fizzled on the flavor scale on one visit, in part because of the flat red sauce. On another visit, the red sauce tasted much zestier underneath the colorful Big Star pizza loaded with crumbled sausage, Molinari pepperoni, red and yellow bell peppers, Castelvetrano olives, roasted mushrooms and red onions. Another winner, the sauceless sweet potato pizza – stacked with thin slices of the tuber, plus puddles of soft, sweet ricotta, and strewn with earthy sage and minced chives – is almost dessert-like. You can design your own pizza, but it can get pricey quickly, choosing between the $1, $2 or $3 topping categories.
Truth be told, you can get much better pizza in a number of places, but I do love the delicate, crisp crunch of Federal’s crust, followed by a soft, yeasty chew. And I love how a dough bubble will often erupt in the gas- and wood-fired oven, leaving a mini volcano with dark, jagged peaks extruding even more flavor.
If sweets are in the cards, Federal’s three desserts ($6) will stick to your ribs: cloyingly sweet mud pie with an Oreo cookie base, chocolate mousse and toasted marshmallow; bombolini (fried doughnuts, heavy for their size, rolled in powdered sugar) served with nondescript chocolate syrup; and the best of the bunch, mixed berry cobbler topped with a scoop of Churn’s vanilla ice cream.
For some, especially those in the ’hood, Federal Pizza is likely to be a regular hangout. For everyone else, it may depend on if you’re a pessimist or an idealist.
: 5210 N. Central Ave., Phoenix
: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-12 a.m. Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday
: F & A Veg board ($11); corn coins ($5); grapefruit-ginger wine cooler ($8); porchetta ($10); Big Star pizza ($14); sweet potato pizza ($13); three berry cobbler ($6)
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