Is the Maggiore clan’s people-pleasing North Phoenix bistro killing it? Not yet, our critic says.
At 7 p.m. on a Saturday night in February, The Sicilian Butcher at Tatum Boulevard and Greenway Road is running a wait list. It’s high season, to be sure, but this good-looking spot has a lot more going for it than hungry snowbirds. The indoor-outdoor bar and garden-like patio are a huge draw, as is its fun, wallet-friendly menu, built upon traditional Sicilian street snacks and familiar Italian favorites such as meatballs – 10 different varieties! – offered with mix-and-match pastas and sauces.
However, I would be disingenuous if I didn’t add that the two-month-old restaurant – led by chef and co-owner Joey Maggiore, the Hash Kitchen impresario who learned the trade in dad Tomaso Maggiore’s string of eponymous Valley restaurants – has plenty of kinks to work out, starting with the exclusively Italian wine list, devoid of any descriptors and therefore incomprehensible to all but the most serious (and fluent) Italian oenophiles. Our well-versed server recommends a Nero d’Avola, returning minutes later to tell us the restaurant has sold out of it. The same is true for our second choice, our third and the Italian beer we finally select out of sheer frustration.
Once the drink drama is over, we settle down over a Sicilian Street Board, which combines four of the menu’s seven appetizers, all fried and a bit heavy: cigar-shaped cazzilli (breaded and fried mashed potato-mozzarella croquettes); pannelle fries (a misnomer for blond, bland and singularly un-crispy planks of mashed chickpeas); arancini (rice balls filled with meat ragù); and crispy squares of semolina-dusted cuttlefish (the best of the lot) served with lemon aioli.
Bruschetta boards come in crowd-pleasing combos, but it isn’t smoked salmon with dill mascarpone I fondly remember – or even silky, salty bresaola beef with smoked blue cheese aioli, tomato and arugula – but the tender, cake-like bread on which they’re served.
If only the schiaciatta (flatbreads) were half as good! The albino-like dough lacks flavor, chew and char – as if it never made acquaintance with an oven. Consequently, the entire flatbread menu suffers, including sfincione, Sicily’s signature pizza. Topped with caramelized onions, ricotta, mozzarella, colatura (anchovy sauce) and a crunchy dusting of pecorino-laced breadcrumbs, it’s somehow bland and boring, tasting primarily of ricotta. When I’m hungry for pizza, this isn’t where I’ll come.
Meatballs and their various accompaniments are wildly inconsistent. The fettuccine is overcooked and clumpy; the polenta is undercooked and granular; and the Parmigiano cream sauce is mostly cream, lacking the salty, nutty, buttery notes of Parmigiano. Flavorful Sicilian meatballs, studded with raisins and pine nuts, and lemony lump crab and shrimp meatballs are just right, but Tony’s “dry-aged” steak balls are mushy and unexceptional.
Overall, “unexceptional” may be the prevailing theme here. Exactly three dishes blew me away: a tasty panini, stacked with excellent pistachio-studded mortadella, provolone, red onion, tomato and arugula; wonderfully creamy New York cheesecake with blackberry compote; and sinfully sweet espresso-caramel panna cotta that I could happily eat every day (even if the caramel is a bit runny). Otherwise, I’m left with a sense of what the Italians call delusione – great patio and wait-list notwithstanding.
The Sicilian Butcher
Contact: 15530 N. Tatum Blvd, Phoenix, 602-775-5140, thesicilianbutcher.com
Hours: Su-Th 11 a.m.-10 p.m., F-Sa 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Highlights: Crispy cuttlefish ($13); bruschetta board ($15); mortadella panini ($12); NY cheesecake ($10); espresso-caramel panna cotta ($10)