Not since the ’80s has there been such a craze for Italian food in Phoenix. Aside from yearling Tratto, the toughest places to snag a table this season have been Fat Ox and Mora Italian – two white-hot modern Italian restaurants that opened among a wave of pasta-pushers in recent months.
Mora might be the best of the bunch. Celebrity chef and James Beard Award winner Scott Conant (best known for his judging gig on Food Network’s Chopped) and his local pizzaiolo partner Stefano Fabbri (of Pomo fame) are the illustrious names behind the restaurant, a high-octane osteria on Seventh Street that adroitly caroms between comfort, elegance and kitsch.
Conant, the talented guy who turned American-inflected Italian food on its ear at Manhattan’s elegant L’Impero back in 2002 (I went, I ate, I loved), brings a similar but less formal mindset to Mora, offering approachable dishes that feel fresh and modern while hewing, more or less, to tradition – in other words, Italian food as interpreted by an American who isn’t wed to the rules.
The freewheeling attitude begins with feminine cocktails such as the Rosé Snowcone (rosé Provençal, grapefruit and pink peppercorn over shaved ice) and the Amalfi Sour (lemon-distilled Malfy gin and vermouth-like Cocchi Rosa with citrus and aromatics, including fennel bitters), each more complex than its appearance suggests.
When the place isn’t crowded (almost never), Mora trundles around a bread cart offering dense, nut-studded country bread, wonderfully chewy focaccia and tangy ciabatta, served with spreads of dreamy mascarpone butter, faintly spicy artichoke, roasted garlic and eggplant caponata. At $8 for the table, I’d get it every time.
A salumi and cheese board of San Daniele prosciutto, spicy guanciale, soppressata, finocchiona (fennel-scented sausage), buttery taleggio, Parmigiano-Reggiano and aged pecorino, makes another great shared plate, but there’s one “for the table” selection I’d rather keep entirely to myself: creamy foie gras-enriched chicken liver pâté, smeared on country bread with a dab of onion agrodolce (Italian sweet and sour sauce) for a tart-sweet counterpoint. I don’t think I could ever tire of eating it.
I feel just as effusive about focaccia di Recco, which vaguely resembles a flour tortilla, lightly browned and puffy, filled with a mild, creamy cheese called stracchino. It’s a bit like an inside-out cheese crisp sparked with sea salt, not salsa – bland to my friend, fresh-tasting and positively addictive to me.
From the antipasti section come seasonal mushrooms boscaiola (“woodsman” in Italian), an earthy pairing of mushroom sauce and ultra-creamy polenta, accented with truffles and bacon. Although the mushrooms seem a bit salty, the polenta ranks among the best I’ve ever had. Small pork and veal meatballs, fragrant with fennel, arrive with an equally creamy pudding of semolina (wheat, not corn) laced with broccoli rabe pesto, a crowd-pleasing winner.
Grilled octopus, another antipasti, has been popular on local menus for years now, and my expectations for Mora’s iteration are high. The dish arrives cold, but perhaps that’s the intent, a sort of Middle Eastern mezze of chickpea purée, crispy potato, cured olives and mint. Temperature issues aside, no amount of gussying up can make spindly, anemic octopus tentacles, their texture mushy and unappealing, taste good. This one’s a dud to my pal and me.
The salads do work, however – particularly an endive and radicchio situation tossed with pine nut vinaigrette and strewn with shaved Parmigiano. The interplay of bitter, tart, salty and nutty flavors is lovely. A little gem lettuce salad begs the “Is this a true Caesar?” question with its “Caesar-style” dressing description, which allows for something less in-your-face than the anchovy-heavy Caesars of old. It’s decent, but it’s not the Platonic ideal I keep in my mind.
The menu describes Mora’s pastas as “for the soul,” and the label isn’t far off. The three I tried are simple yet often spectacular. Pasta al Pomodoro, the specialty Conant first introduced at Scarpetta (another critically acclaimed restaurant in his stable) tastes richer and far more delish than plain old spaghetti with tomato sauce has any right to, although I like it better the first time I have it than the second. Apparently, Jay Z and Queen Bey adore it (yawn) as does New York food writer and SeriousEats.com founder Ed Levine (whose opinion holds considerably more weight with me).
Strozzapreti (twined strips of pasta; the name means “priest-choker”) might not appeal to people who love sauce and lots of it, but I’m completely content with a distinctly un-saucy duck ragù with arugula and a hint of truffle. Ricotta and mascarpone gnudi – airy white dumplings spooned with bright, concentrated tomato sauce – are so dreamy I suspect they’ll figure prominently in my food dreams for weeks to come.
Mora’s menu is designed for grazing, and I could easily eat at the place without ever ordering one of the five straightforward entrees. That said, an 18-ounce, dry-aged and wood-grilled ribeye, plated with pickled leeks, roasted carrots and roasted baby potatoes, is exemplary: charred outside, bright pink inside and lusciously fatty. I also like chicken in potacchio – a classic dish made with garlic, rosemary, white wine, fennel and wrinkly, slow-cooked tomatoes; I just wish it were saucier. Likewise, grilled scaloppine of beef short rib, served with charred zucchini and arugula, needs more of the spicy Calabrian chile glaze mentioned on the menu. It’s still darned good, though.
Beet and Brussels sprout fatigue is a very real danger in today’s dining milieu, but here are two ways to beat it: Mora’s beets with house-made pesto and mascarpone and its extra crispy Brussels sprouts, amped up with double-smoked bacon, pickled chile and lemon vinaigrette. Problem solved.
As for desserts, there’s nothing particularly Italian about salted caramel budino, an ultra-sweet pudding sprinkled with chocolate-hazelnut crumbles called gianduja, but it will satisfy your sugar cravings like no other. Ditto for moist Cubano coconut cake, at least a quarter of a whole cake (and no small cake at that) layered with coconut-mascarpone filling, frosted with toasted coconut and accented with lime and rum.
Like any new restaurant, Mora would benefit from training its servers more thoroughly, some of whom can’t identify the meats and cheeses on the salumi board or properly time when the dishes should hit the table. On the plus side, everyone, including the valet, is friendly and welcoming. I’ll be angling for another reservation sometime soon because I definitely want me some Mora.
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