“Hidden gem” is one of the most cliché phrases in a food writer’s tattered toolkit, but in S. Maranto’s case, it is literally true. The bright little bistro, a modern spin on a classic Italian American joint, is downright difficult to find in the sprawling Scottsdale 101 shopping plaza at Mayo Boulevard and the 101 – technically in Phoenix, though it’s literal steps from Scottsdale city limits. It’s smack-dab in a sea of chains – Starbucks, Hobby Lobby, Red Robin, Chick-fil-A – so it’s easy for a local-favoring patron to overlook. I urge you to find it. Pass the Starbucks and train your eyes on the next corner, in the little strip housing Pure Barre, Panda Express and Subway.
You’ll be rewarded for your efforts with a small eatery (little more than a handful of tables indoors and on a wraparound patio), chic little bar (post up on the corner for views of the dramatic wood-fired oven), mini market (spotted: jarred Carbone sauces and bronze die-cut pastas), petite bakery (a handful of fresh breads for sale) and diminutive deli (choice cured meats). Black and white tiles cover one wall, historical photos and sentimental artifacts adorn another. Some tables have gingham cloths, others have naked wooden tops, gleaming in the natural light streaming in from floor-to-ceiling windows. Pops of red – chairs, candle holders and countless cans of tomato sauce – accent the neutrals and charmingly remind you you’re in a “red sauce” joint.
It’s all the handiwork of Michael Miller, an enterprising young restaurateur (allegedly he’s 26, though without his facial hair he’d look about 16) who is the third generation in his maternal line to run a restaurant. His grandparents, Sam and Rita Maranto, opened The Italian Kitchen in El Paso, Texas, in 1948. It still operates today, along with a second El Paso location run by his family. After working in restaurant and resort kitchens in the Valley, in 2021 Miller decided to strike out on his own and open S. Maranto’s – sweetly named in honor of his nonno, Sam.
I’m not a fancy gal when it comes to meat. Give me a greasy cheeseburger over a high-end steak any day of the week. Better yet, give me meatballs, which are a practically perfect food in my eyes (and stomach). Miller wins me over for life when he brings out a hulking tray of monstrous meatballs, hand-rolled by his talented kitchen staff (shout out to chef Megan Anderson and Benji) every day using his grandmother’s recipe. At the sight and smell of them, I know this will be a better media happy hour than most.
You can order meatballs two ways at S. Maranto’s, and during happy hour they’re just $6 for a trio – half off their regular price. The regular meatballs come with spicy pomodoro sauce, Parmesan and rosemary focaccia. They’re jaw-droppingly tender and tingly from what I surmise are Calabrian chiles, but might just be crushed red pepper. Totally classic, totally delicious. But my favorite are Rita’s Meatballs, named for his nonna. They’re deep-fried, so their plush interior is protected by a crackly, golden, crunchy exterior. No red sauce on these – instead they’re showered with olive oil, Parmesan, pine nuts, parsley and garlic, also served with rosemary focaccia. I am not lying when I say they are among the best meatballs I have ever eaten, anywhere. I want them smooshed onto that focaccia, I want them with pasta, I want them in a sandwich (I hear S. Maranto’s meatball and chicken Parm sandwiches are tops – I’ll be back some lunchtime to try them).
Also herby and delicious are the Chicken Angelo Wings ($10), inspired by a beloved cook from The Italian Kitchen’s roast chicken recipe. Instead of using it on a whole bird, they rub garlic, lemon and herbs on fried chicken wings and mushrooms, with a snowdrift of Parmesan. It’s umami to the nth degree. Garlic bread ($4) is soft and pliant on the inside, lightly crispy and seasoned on the outside. It’s made using semolina hoagie bread crafted fresh daily by local bakery Trigos Artisan Breads. (Everything here is made from scratch.) Two salads are also on offer during happy hour: Sam’s Caesar (with fried capers and jumbo croutons) and the chopped antipasto (everything you could possibly want in an Italian-style salad), each $7.
Happy hour sips include Peroni ($5), S. Maranto’s IPA ($5), Huss Brewing Co. Orange Blossom ($5), $6 rotating red or white wines (when I visit, it’s Beringer Pinot Noir and Cupcake Pinot Grigio) and well spirits ($4).
House-made limoncello ($8) and specialty cocktails aren’t that much more expensive, and they’re still a steal compared to the average cocktail bar’s pricing. My PR pal Carol and I try the Tuscan Tea ($8), a sangria-inspired tipple marrying Chianti and citrus with anise, that most Italian of spices; and the Amalfi Sunset ($10), a spin on the Aperol spritz that brings sweet-tart fruitiness with its addition of raspberry.
Next time, I’ll try the Erba Fresco ($8, rosemary vodka, lime, cucumber) and the Italian Greyhound ($8, vodka, grapefruit, basil). Now that I know where this place is, they’ll have to shoo me away with a grissino to get me to leave.
Happy hour runs Monday-Saturday from 3-6 p.m.
7000 E. Mayo Blvd., Phoenix, 602-283-4730, smarantos.com