Mesa finally has a buzzy, chef-driven restaurant, in the form of this rustic Italian gem from chef Tony Snyder.
Forgive me for sounding like the Snottsdale food snob I probably am, but when I’m looking for the next cool restaurant discovery, preferably some low-key, seasonally inspired neighborhood place with a talented chef at the helm, Mesa is never my first thought – or even my fifth. As exciting as its growing list of Asian restaurants may be, the East Valley city remains a beige culinary backwater where vapid family dining reigns and the sidewalks get rolled up shortly after sundown.
That’s why Osteria feels like such a fluke. Occupying a strip mall space on McKellips Road in the hinterland of northeast Mesa, it’s clearly cut from the same cloth as other au courant restaurants in more fashionable parts of town, with its requisite indoor-outdoor bar, expo kitchen eating counter, wood-burning oven, shiny espresso machine and wines on tap. It also boasts the most fancy-pants chef you’ve never heard of: ex-Bourbon Steak maestro Tony Snyder, a dough whisperer and bona fide talent who has worked for heavy-hitters like Rancho Pinot’s Chrysa Robertson and catering king Michael DeMaria.
The anomaly makes a little more sense when you find out Osteria’s owners are Mesa residents Jeff and Alec-Lauren Golzio, the forward-thinking couple behind Handlebar Pub & Grill, which brought craft beer and farmers’ market ingredients to Apache Junction back in 2011. Now these East Valley pioneers have opened a relaxed neighborhood restaurant that reflects their Italian heritage – a casual, wine-focused hangout, much like the osterias of Italy, offering a short, rustic menu of starters, salads, pizza and pasta.
I was inclined to love the place within 15 minutes of my first visit, thanks to reasonably priced, better-than-average wines by the glass, densely textured house-made ciabatta served with good olive oil and a young bartender so upbeat he busted out the occasional dance move between serving us and chatting us up. It didn’t hurt, either, that the first course we sampled, wild mushroom arancini, was a stunner – crispy-outside, melty-inside rice balls generously dusted with grated Parmesan, strewn with Italian parsley, flecked with brown crystals of porcini salt and arranged over an ethereal Parmesan foam, or espuma, I would eat by the spoonful if it weren’t so rich.
Grilled octopus, another starter, left a similarly great first impression. Snyder marinates it in Calabrian chile paste, followed by a lengthy braising before charring it on the grill. Served with lightly crisped fingerlings, wilted arugula, dabs of olive aioli, drizzles of chile oil and a sprinkle of crunchy breadcrumbs, it’s wonderfully tender, offering up subdued smoke and a touch of chile heat.
On another visit, made-to-order mozzarella, anointed with olive oil and overlaid with strips of roasted bell pepper and softened slivers of celery, is warm, supple and elastic, right up there in quality with the best house-made mozzarellas in town, which I generally attribute to Kevin Binkley and, not coincidentally, Robertson.
Wood-fired meatballs arrive bubbling hot in a cast iron skillet, swimming in a thick tomato sauce daubed with roasted garlic cream. Toasted ciabatta, provided for mopping up the rich remains, is gone in minutes. Finish two or three of these not-so-small plates with a friend and you’re probably set for the night.
For my part, it will be hard to go back and not have the classic Caesar salad, lightly dressed and so perfectly rendered that I’ve thought of it fondly once or twice since. I love Snyder’s use of mild white anchovies and his ample shaves of buttery Parmesan. The Osteria chopped salad, brimming with salami, provolone, red onion, pepperoncini and crispy garbanzos, runs a reasonably close second.
Snyder tells me that 20 dozen eggs go into a single batch of pasta dough, and I believe it. His flavorful but remarkably weightless noodles are sensational – especially the lovely campanelle (resembling a bell-shaped flower with ruffled edges) tossed with the best pesto I’ve had in ages – a light, elegant rendition Snyder makes fresh daily. On the opposite end of the flavor and texture spectrum resides a tangle of tagliatelle, bathed in meaty Bolognese and dotted with whole milk ricotta, which adds creamy richness to an already hearty dish. The lusty, bright red Pomodoro sauce that smothers Snyder’s spaghetti – simple, old school, satisfying – is a nod to his early days at famed Charlie Gitto’s on The Hill in St. Louis. My least favorite of the pastas is slightly too al dente ravioli, stuffed with a bland mix of spinach and ricotta, and topped with wilted spinach, Parmigiano-Reggiano and chopped pistachios.
Snyder, who spent time at the ill-fated Forge pizzeria at the Union in Biltmore Fashion Park, slings a mean pie. His thin crusts, puffy and blistered from the wood-burning oven, possess just the right amount of char and chew. Of the three I’ve sampled, the best of the lot is a white pizza topped with mozzarella, ricotta and a pleasantly funky Gorgonzola, the whole rich and creamy thing lightly dribbled with chile oil for a spark of heat. Also first-rate: a pizza topped with salsiccia (fennel-scented Italian sausage), mozzarella, red onion and mushroom. I’m considerably less enchanted with an undercooked spinach, prosciutto and mozzarella pie, which our server recommended for its lemony flavor. But hey, to each his own.
For now, Snyder offers one entrée as a nightly special, but he plans to expand the selection over time. Moist, crisp-skinned chicken from Sunny Side Farm offers the sort of homey goodness you’d expect from an osteria. I just wish its accompaniments were lighter and more summery than white beans and kale, a kvetch that will be moot by the time you read this and Snyder swaps in a new, lighter special.
Desserts, made by various members of the kitchen crew, are uniformly good as well. It’s tough to pick a favorite among fudgy flourless chocolate cake with espresso cream, light ricotta cheesecake with an ever-changing fruit conserve and a golden-brown crostata composed of tender pie crust wrapped around fresh peaches.
For all of these reasons, Osteria instantly becomes my new favorite Mesa restaurant, and a fine, neo-traditionalist counterpart to Tratto, Mora and the other greats of Italian dining in the Valley. Yep, Mesa’s got itself a cool, chef-driven restaurant at last, and my being wrong never felt so right.
Contact: 5609 E. McKellips Rd., Mesa, 480-300-5404, osteriausa.com
Hours: Su-Th 7 a.m. -9 p.m.; F-Sa 7 a.m.- 10 p.m.
Highlights: Arancini ($10); grilled octopus ($17); warm mozzarella ($11); Caesar salad ($11); campanelle with pesto ($13); bianco pizza ($17)