Photo by Leah LeMoine
To stay connected during the pandemic – and to nurture our shared love of cooking – my friend Kristy suggested a weekly FaceTime cooking date. Her proposal: We’d take turns selecting recipes to cook along with the other, virtually. A cooking club for two? I said yes without hesitation. We started Quarantine Culinarians in July 2020 and have miraculously kept it up since, with a few skipped weeks and a brief hiatus this past summer. (I promise this will lead to a happy hour write-up – just stay with me.)
Each week, we stumble into our kitchens after long days of working (both of us), running households (both of us), caring for partners and dogs (both of us), and raising a child (just her). We pop up on each other’s phone screens with unwashed hair piled on our heads, weariness on our faces and loungewear (OK, often pajamas) on our bodies. We open bottles of wine and thank heaven that the other person can’t smell our un-showered forms. It’s nice to be so comfortable with a friend that you can show them your dirty and disheveled side, but, as in romantic relationships, sometimes you gotta gussy it up and reignite the spark.
So, imagine our joy when we put down our phones and met in person – for the first time since the pandemic began! – for a media happy hour at Mora Italian this week. Kristy’s filmy, navy-blue bohemian dress made her blue-green eyes pop. Her matte gold hoops glimmered against her fresh blonde waves. I got properly dressed, too – shower and everything! Instead of looking like harried bag ladies, we appeared to fit in with our sleek surroundings in Mora’s bar area, with its cushy wraparound banquette seating, polished wood tables and coppery modern light fixtures facing a gleaming bar framed by patterned blue tiles and periwinkle Italian barstools (with backs! can more bars please have stools with backs?).
The bar was pretty empty when we settled into our banquette booth at 4 p.m., but it slowly filled with guests as our sweet, attentive and slyly funny server, Matthew, gave us the skinny on the newly launched happy hour menu.
Kristy and I are both huge fans of Mora chef/owner and PHOENIX mag Great 48 honoree Scott Conant, so we knew we were in good hands with The Bites, as the “Rush Hour” menu calls happy hour nibbles.
Matthew and Kevin, Mora’s general managers, urged us to try the tigelle, the newest item on the list. These petite sandwiches were inspired by the street snacks of the same name in Italy’s revered Emilia-Romagna region, which blessed the world with Parmigiano-Reggiano, prosciutto di Parma, balsamic vinegar and mortadella, among other gustatory gifts. Fluffy focaccia dough is layered into a patterned metal press and baked in a fiery oven, à la the campfire s’mores toasters of old. These rounds are filled with your choice of porchetta, prosciutto cotto or fried eggplant (two for $8, three for $10). We wanted to sample them all, so we chose the trio. Our favorite was the porchetta – luscious, perfectly salty and deeply savory roasted pork draped with arugula and fontina fonduta. The prosciutto cotto (cooked ham, not the uncooked variety often seen on charcuterie boards and wrapped around hunks of melon) was a close second. It melted in the mouth like the best mortadella, its sublime fattiness balanced by the stewy acidity of tomato conserva. The eggplant – Matthew’s favorite – was also great, its earthiness underscored by zippy Calabrian chile salsa and creamy stracciatella. If we liked eggplant more, we would have loved it. The only thing that surprised us about these morsels was their temperature – for some reason, we thought the entire sandwiches went into the oven, not just the bread, so we expected them to be toasty and warm throughout. Instead, they were like ultraluxe deli sliders.
Photo by Leah LeMoine
The zucchini fritti ($6) were lightly crunchy thanks to a chickpea flour dredge that reminded me, pleasantly, of panelle, the Sicilian chickpea fritters I could eat by the dozen. The zucchini batons were showered with flecks of Calabrian chile and fresh mint, with a punchy yet creamy pickled pepper aioli. What a perfect little snack.
Kristy savored the foie and crostini ($10), a pot of intensely rich foie gras topped with Port gelée, capers and pickled shallots. I’m just not a foie person. I did nibble on the crusty bread and perky, peppery radish rounds served alongside. With a bit of salted butter to unite those two, I could have had a nice little French nosh in that Italian hot spot. The next time she visits, I’m sure Kristy will order the olives ascolane ($6), Castelvetrano olives stuffed with fennel sausage and fried, and the Calabrian chile wings ($7), grilled and glazed chicken wings with lime and chives. She loves briny and spicy things, so those are totally up her alley.
Instead, we continued our gabfest over the Neapolitan pizza of the day ($12). “You had me at meatballs,” Kristy told Matthew after he rattled off the ingredients: crumbled meatballs, feta and spinach piled on Mora’s stretchy, chewy and soft pizza dough. You can also get a traditional margherita ($10) or soppressata ($12).
This is an Italian restaurant, so of course there’s Peroni ($5 during happy hour). Well drinks are $8 apiece, and a cadre of craft cocktails run $10-$12 each. Kristy ordered the blood orange spritz ($10), a gorgeous glass of aperitivo, Frico Frizante, blood orange juice, lime juice and mesquite honey. The color alone is beguiling, and she said it tasted just as beautiful.
I went with the Drunken Wifey ($12, also available at Mora’s sister restaurant, The Americano). Tequila makes a surprisingly good bedfellow for house-made limoncello, with herbal inflections from elderflower, mesquite honey and thyme. I love tequila, herbs, honey and lemon, so it’s like this cocktail was tailormade for me. A vertical rectangle of sparkling salt and bits of edible flower on the outside of the glass and a crown of dehydrated lemon and fresh thyme make this drink another stunner.
Photo by Leah LeMoine
Kristy ordered a white wine to go with her pizza (red, white and rosé wines are all $8 and all from Frico, a personal favorite of mine and the maker of my favorite Lambrusco). I contemplated the Dealer’s Choice cocktail ($10), a mystery concoction from the talented mixologists behind the bar, but I was still feeling the potency of the Drunken Wifey. I decided to instead sober up with a Coke, which Matthew served in a curvy waterglass with a paper straw. “Our house Coca-Cola,” he deadpanned. “Thank you, dahling,” I responded. I love it when people are playful.
On our way out, I spotted a copy of Conant’s new cookbook, Peace, Love, and Pasta, at the host stand. Ever the Food Network nerd, I preordered it months ago and have it on my coffee table at home, full of Post-Its marking recipes I want to try. Maybe one of them will be my next Quarantine Culinarians pick, and Kristy and I can relive our night on the town at Mora.
Happy hour runs Tuesday-Sunday from 4-6 p.m. in the bar only.
Kristy writes for us online and has her own foodie account empire over at WhereShouldWeEat. Follow along for more of her tasty adventures!