The heir to the Tomaso restaurant fortune dives into clean, refined coastal Italian fare.
Cuttlefish owner and executive chef Joey Maggiore has some pretty big loafers to fill. His father is Tomaso Maggiore, the culinary godfather whose eponymous Italian restaurant in the Camelback Corridor has charmed Valley palates for 35 years. What's more, Maggiore must live up to expectations set by Cuttlefish's original chef, the Le Bernadin-trained Michael Dei Maggi, whose reign in the kitchen lasted only three days following the Scottsdale restaurant's opening last November.
But Maggiore isn't riding anyone's coattails. After training at Scottsdale Culinary Academy and on the job at several Maggiore family restaurants, he moved to San Diego and opened Joey's California Bistro in 1999. He later appeared with his sister Melissa Maggiore in the short-lived Food Network reality series Family Style.
With a cool coastal palette and showpiece oyster bar, Cuttlefish invites comparisons to another notable local establishment: restaurateur Sam Fox's Little Cleo's Seafood Legend. Where Cleo's is a bustling urban hangout, Maggiore's Gainey Village eatery offers a slower and more refined experience. There's plenty of time to take in subtleties like the scale pattern seen in the booth upholstery and sculptural artwork. Less subtle is the row of eleven adorable Vespas – complete with decorative license plates and working taillights – that serve as bar stools.
Maggiore's menu changes on a weekly basis, with a focus on seafood he rightly describes as "pristine." Consider the California albacore ($11). The pine-smoked crudo tastes as pure and clean as spring rain, its neutral flavor amplified by plump raisins and zesty peppercorns. Flaky chickpea breading tames the chewy texture of crispy cuttlefish ($12) – a squid-like mollusk with chunky tentacles – while Italian shrimp and grits ($15) benefits from flavorful stock. Be forewarned, the latter makes for a Dexter-like crustacean decapitation experience – make sure you have plastic sheeting (or at least a finger bowl) handy.
Raised in the cool coastal waters of southern Chile and rated a "good alternative" by Monterey Bay's Seafood Watch Program, raw Verlasso salmon ($11) is ghostly clean on the palate. Boosted by the acidic tang of ripe grape tomatoes, the dish is especially refreshing when spread onto a crisp cucumber slice rather than the provided crackers. Its cooked counterpart ($26) is the culinary version of a drilling expedition, each layer yielding new results ranging from delightfully salty and crisp skin down to a glassy, heat-kissed core. The Verlasso salmon is equally delicious served cold on a thick hoagie roll with ripe tomato and lettuce at lunchtime ($13).
For pure decadence, you can't beat the natural sweetness of seared scallops served with bacon-studded sweet corn risotto ($26). Larger than a silver dollar and plumper than a thick-cut filet, the massive mollusks are rich and buttery, with a melt-in-your-mouth texture. Cuttlefish's New York strip ($29) is also a glutton's delight: a two-inch-thick slab of prime beef pan-roasted and plated with marrow. The flayed bone's innards are seared and crusted with salt for a buttery accompaniment to the succulent, flavorful meat.
Though seafood is a Maggiore specialty, Cuttlefish's Zinfandel-braised short ribs ($24) are a knockout. They hit all the right notes: tender, moist and lean, with the addition of a strong, sanguine wine marinade that breaks down the natural metallic tang of red meat. The accompanying heirloom carrots were fragrant and potato puree appropriately creamy, even if I was too busy shoveling forkfuls of the delicious roast into my mouth to give its sides proper attention.
Speaking of sides ($7 each), anything featuring cheese is a safe bet. Maggiore's crab mac and cheese pairs hand-rolled strozzapreti pasta with tangy Gruyère and sharp cheddar for a dish that's decadent and hearty enough to be enjoyed as a main. Cauliflower fonduta presented in a cute cast-iron crock is pungent and firm, with thick layers of house-smoked mozzarella and Gouda. Greens such as Modena-drenched Brussels sprouts and broccolini are solid, but the stomach room is better saved for the restaurant's salty and addictive cuttlefish-inked rolls.
Mac and cheese aside, house-made pastas are Cuttlefish's weak link. Fishy, anchovy-laced puttanesca drowns out the unique tang of cuttlefish-inked noodles in Linguine Nero ($19), and salmon overwhelms its sweeter companions in seafood cannelloni ($23). Heftier doses of creamy béchamel might better balance the pungent fish. The standout pasta fatta in casa is pappardelle ($17), an updated version of a Tomaso's fave featuring thick-cut, eggy noodles and fork-tender beef in savory mushroom gravy. It's eerily reminiscent of my mom's "ghetto goulash," a melting pot of leftover ingredients that always had me begging for seconds.
Maggiore's weekly rotations are a foodie's dream and a regular's nightmare. Blink and you'll miss an opportunity for moist, buttery chicken saltimbocca ($24) and lobster bisque ($12) with a smoky, peppery undertone that belies its creamy base. Perhaps the biggest sucker-punch to the gut was Christmas week's panettone bread pudding ($8). Soaked in custard, the flaky bread turned supple and yeasty. Sugary candied orange and brandy-soaked raisin gelato hammered my brain's pleasure centers like the bell at the top of a carnival strongman game. Cloud-like orange blossom panna cotta and rich, chocolaty deconstructed cream puffs ($8 each) helped to ease the post-panettone heartache, but even the latter's dark and decadent mousse couldn't compare to the gingery holiday pastry.
With Dei Maggi having laid the menu's foundation, Maggiore is poised to continue the family fine dining legacy. So far, he's swimming strong. Cuttlefish is the Tomaso's of a new generation, replacing stability and tradition with a buzz of excitement that leaves diners wondering what Joey will cook up next.
Cuttlefish Ocean Kitchen
Contact: 8777 N. Scottsdale Rd., Scottsdale, 480-947-3214,
Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. daily.
Highlights: California albacore ($11); Italian shrimp and grits ($15); raw Verlasso salmon ($11); seared scallops ($26); lobster bisque ($12); Zinfandel-braised short ribs ($24); crab mac and cheese ($7); pappardelle ($17); chicken saltimbocca ($24); panettone bread pudding ($8)
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