There’s no need to fly the 6,000 miles from Phoenix to Italy to get a feel for the old country. Lounging in the dining room of Tomaso’s and chatting with chef/owner Tomaso Maggiore has much the same effect. The self-described “pioneer of Italian cuisine in Phoenix” celebrates his restaurant’s 40th anniversary this year – quite a feat in a competitive industry and an ever-changing city.
“When I came over here, there were no freeways,” Maggiore says as he reflects on Phoenix in the 1970s. “There was only the I-17 that went up north to Flagstaff. The population was around 300,000.” In 1971 he moved from his home in Sicily, Italy, to New York City, where he began to learn about Italian-American food – so different from the Sicilian dishes he grew up eating.
After visiting Arizona, Maggiore made the decision to move his family to the desert, which has a similar climate to Sicily, minus the humidity. That vague familiarity and the chance to do something no one else in the area was doing – regional Italian cuisine – was too good an opportunity for Maggiore to pass up. In 1977, Tomaso’s opened on Camelback Road in east Phoenix with 12 tables that could seat 45 people total. Today, the restaurant has 50 tables and can hold nearly 200 people.
It’s been a family business from the start, Maggiore says. He proudly gestures over to the photo of him and his mother that hangs near the kitchen’s entrance. “That lady could make shoe leather taste good,” he says. “I don’t know how she did it.” The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree in this family. Maggiore’s son Joey manages several restaurants in Arizona and California, including the brunch hot spot Hash Kitchen in Scottsdale. And Maggiore presented his daughter, Melissa, with a restaurant in California as a wedding gift.
The traditional foods of Italy are wide-ranging, from Sicilian veal tenderloin Marsala to the branzino in brodetto of Tuscany. In order to accurately represent the whole country, Maggiore offers a regular menu with different specials every day. One day he’ll feature a Rome-inspired dish of saltimbocca di pollo and the next will be one of Maggiore’s favorite meals like rigatoni amatriciana with guanciale di Norcia and pecorino. Maggiore says the challenge of having to keep up with trends like gluten-free diets has “been a little tough to get adjusted to,” but the chef has always found a way to stay true to his Italian roots.
Maggiore takes pride in where he comes from, but says he is happy to now call Phoenix home. “We’ve [my family and I] become Americans, Phoenicians. We’ve been here so long, we feel we belong here. I’m what you call a reborn Sicilian cowboy,” Maggiore says.
Even at age 69, this cowboy shows no sign of slowing down. A North Scottsdale offshoot of Tomaso’s, christened Tomaso’s When in Rome, is slated to open this summer.
“To be in my business, you have to have the passion,” Maggiore says. “If you don’t have the passion, find something else to do.”
— Nikole Tower
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