RnR / Cartel / Bodega / Italian Restaurant, Phoenix AZ

…having now found some rhythm at work and soon to be (fingers crossed) a new home owner with upcoming high stakes tests, travel, and more on the agenda I decided to take one more Saturday off to tour my new city’s culinary scene on Saturday and with a reservation at Noca secured for dinner thanks to the urging of one Steve Plotnicki the rest of the day fell in line thanks to localdines.com and (again) Phoenix’s most celebrated chef with a few bites between.

Beginning first with breakfast, after a long morning run I made my way to Scottsdale’s RnR; a bit off the grid for my predilections given its popularity as a trendy bar and space “focused on food and fun,” but a space that seemed to have a lot going for in this particular instance in that they had early opening hours, plenty of space, a carb heavy breakfast menu, and (most importantly) The Buckeyes on satellite – not to mention a localdines certificate that would let me eat (essentially) for free. Having heard mixed things from people about everything from the location to the service to the food and the clientele I admittedly went in a skeptic, but what I found left a good impression.

Located on Scottsdale road just past 1st and featuring a 2-story dining patio plus an industrial chic interior I arrived at RnR just after 8:30 and finding ample parking I made my way in to a sign suggesting I could seat myself – a reasonable proposition that left me any number of 4-6 tops with a great view of the HD-Flatscreens as only one other (very hung-over) party was present – and moments later I was greeted by a young man named Fredrich who would act as my server – and a good one at that considering my substantial capacity for caffeine and nearly two hour stay.

Having already researched the menu online and with $30 to spend per my gift card I spent a few minutes perusing the menu and with the game now tuned in (by request) my order was placed I was left to wait – half studying/half watching the game and fully aware that the restaurant was soon to get quite full and quite loud but perhaps slightly less knowing of just how much food I’d ordered as I sipped a bold and smoky brew simply described as “Italian Roast” and fitting that description quite admirably with an ever so slightly ‘over-roasted’ top note that begged for something sweet – and here, sweetness would come in spades.

Now bearing in mind that Fredrich was the only server I interacted with during the course of my meal I will say here that he could have warned me of what was to come but in all reality I’m kind of glad he didn’t because it would have ruined the surprise of the first dish to arrive – a cinnamon roll the size of a hubcap finished off with a gigantic sparkler that simultaneously made me the child in me think awesome while the adult just laughed at the gluttony realizing that there were 4 more dishes to come…and that the whole room was staring at me. Presentation aside, the cinnamon roll itself was additionally quite excellent; the outside ring suffering from a bit of dryness due to the substantial size but the interior warm, flaky, and easily imbued with a whole stick of butter, a half cup of icing, and multiple tablespoons of cinnamon. For those wondering, I ate all but the outer ring – and yeah, I could’ve probably eaten that as well, but the Quails on Main Street looked hungry and I had four more places to eat on the day’s agenda.

Moving on to my other options, proving the adage that bigger is not always better the Chambord French Toast would prove to be an excellent dish well worthy of its “signature” status with a thick slice of egg bread – think challah without braids or brioche but lighter – split and stuffed with Chambord infused cream cheese and topped with raspberries, Gran Marnier, and light crème Chantilly. Still a large dish, but far less so than the cinnamon roll the French Toast was a practice in subtleties as each constituent was present, pleasant, and balanced without overwhelming the others…and proving my little sister’s theory correct once again, a bit of maple syrup certainly didn’t hurt.

For the last item I’d eat during my stay, a single vanilla bean pancake with apple butter would prove to be sole lowlight of the morning as the cake itself was dense rather than fluffy and largely lacking in vanilla flavor, though the apple butter and seasonal berries were quite nice.

Noting here that I would have been more than contented to leave RnR with a favorable impression at this point, with a $30 certificate to spend and the Buckeyes to watch I stuck around sipping coffee for quite some time while picking at the cinnamon roll and once The Ohio State University had assured a win I picked up two items to go – a chocolate chip muffin and maple bacon scone – both baked in house, served warm, and very nicely done with the scone soft and subtle while the muffin was slightly toothsome and studded with dark chocolate…they went great with a cup of coffee later on at Cartel and solidified RnR as a place I’d definitely return for brunch or perhaps dessert to check out the carrot cake (and maybe a second go at the Cinnamon Roll.)

Having already mentioned Cartel, my second visit to the small shop on 5th would be much longer than my first as I spent nearly two hours reading, listening to Who/Hendrix/Stones/Zeppelin/Floyd, and drinking an excellent Toddy of 50/50 Black Market Espresso and Viota. Having obviously grown their fan base and selections (now including breakfast/lunch/dinner/pastries) since my first visit nearly one year prior when I came out for my job interview/recruitment I still love Cartel and stand by my original assessment that both the shop and the beans compare favorably to spots in New York, Chicago, Seattle, and San Francisco – I’ll have to come back some time to check out the pastries and sandwiches.

With plenty of studying beneath my belt as lunchtime approached I next decided to hop across the street to check out Baratin, but with the daily menu not terribly inspiring aside from the dessert I instead popped next door to Bodega to see what local produce and meats were in – and apparently to buy a brioche donut (complete with the hole) and a brownie with dates and pecans plus a bag of FnB blend coffee from The Roastery of Cave Creek. A small store but with a well culled selection of local cheeses and butters, immaculate organic vegetables and various salads, plus proteins like Jidori Chicken and Berkshire Pork from Tender Belly Farms I’ll definitely have to make a return shopping visit in the future.

Moving on to the items I selected, beginning first with the donut I have to say I expected better – sure the brioche was buttery and surprisingly light, but perhaps due to the time of day or maybe because the donuts were stored on an air-exposed rack the overall consistency was simply too dry. Nicely flavored with what seemed to be vanilla tinged cinnamon sugar perhaps I just got a bad selection, particularly as the hole was much better. Waiting for a while to tackle the brownie (after lunch, to be exact,) it would prove to be far more successful than the donut and having the option to select a corner piece I was particularly impressed by the heft of the cocoa notes and how the use of fruit helped to sweeten the brownie without making it overly sweet. Clearly the result of quality ingredients and rustic as can be I will say that if you can resist temptation long enough to get it home a quick second in the microwave to enjoy it warm really helps as the melting pockets of chocolate juxtaposed against date, nut, and cake were lovely.

With Baratin not quite what I had in mind and dinner plans for noca later that evening I decided to check out noca(wich) but en route realized another space I’d been meaning to investigate was close by as well – Chris Bianco’s “Italian Restaurant.” Having now visited both the eponymous pizzeria and sandwich shoppe with results no less than wowing I’d unfortunately been unable to make it out to the most ‘formal’ restaurant in the Bianco empire since arriving in town and although I’d heard mixed things I knew I owed it to myself and to the Chef to find out whether all things Italian/Epicurean are made better in the hands of team Bianco.

Unassumingly set in the back corner of the “Town and Country” mall and demarcated by a sign simply reading “Italian Restaurant” I’ll start out by saying that even if Bianco had chosen to put his name on the space it would have been tricky to find, but the fact that it goes under such a generic moniker almost seems to reinforce the fact that the chef isn’t trying to rest on his name alone, but instead to focus on the food he holds dear. With rustic signage and large glass windows looking into the open kitchen there is not a shred of evidence that this is a “celebrity chef” restaurant and, really, if one didn’t know any better they could walk right by without paying the space a second thought.

With the time just before 2:00pm and lunch hours till 3:00 I walked through the doors to find the interior largely similar to the outdoors and with the kitchen behind a small bar to the right and three other couples seated amidst the ~40 unmatched chairs and old wooden tables to the left the feeling was instantly anything but that of another Arizona shopping center. Working on a small crew of three during the late lunch hours I stood for a moment at the hostess stand before being greeted by the Chef who introduced himself as (I think) Rob and suggested I take any seat I like, eventually settling on a cozy two-top beneath one of the ceiling fans as the room was a bit warmer than I’d prefer (80ish I’d guess.) Settled in and with my books in hand it would not be long before I was greeted by Hillary, the sole server for the afternoon, who presented the 13-item menu.

With a vibe that speaks to a sleepy Italian villa from the shabby chic seating to paintings straight out of the hands of Italian street artists (or in some cases, family members of Chef Bianco) I spent a few moments perusing the menu before Hillary returned and inquiring as to what the daily ragu for the gnocchi entailed I inquired as to whether the dinner version could be accommodated at lunch instead and informed that she would ask the chef I also ordered a sandwich before turning my attention back to my studies as I waited.

With iced water in hand and the chef agreeable to my gnocchi request it would not be long before a plate of Pane Bianco Bread with Pac Sun Olive Oil would arrive from the kitchen and after a short conversation with my server about what I was reading I turned my attention to the crusty yeasted roll that, while good on its own, was vastly improved by ample use of the grassy and slightly fruited oil. A nice bread course and not served in a portion that led to me overdoing it I’d definitely try the $3 grilled option from the menu as an appetizer in the future.

Moving next to my special request, I really did not know what to expect from the preparation as it was simply listed as “Potato Gnocchi with Arizona Sweet Corn and Zoe’s Pancetta” but seeing as how I love all three ingredients I figured it would be good no matter what; little did I know that it would be the best gnocchi I’ve had in my life. Beginning first with the potato dumplings, each of the little balls was hand cut, light as a cloud, and literally melt in the mouth tender even after a quick sear in the pan but moving past the obvious pasta skills of the restaurant what truly put this dish over the top was the ragu – a sort of half roasted corn kernel/half creamed corn imbued with cream and smoky notes from the pork amalgam absolutely teaming with both sweet and savory notes. So simple, so rustic, and yet so perfect I simply cannot say enough about this dish – the one that finally unseeded Marc Vetri’s 2 year stranglehold on the best version of my very favorite pasta.

With the restaurant slowly starting to fill as I swooned over each bite of the gnocchi Hillary kept my water filled and stopped by repeatedly to check in and find out when I was ready for my sandwich and although I was sad to see the gnocchi go I was happy to see the “House-Made Mozzarella with Prosciutto Di Parma and Basil” sandwich arrive in the same vivid glory as the one from a month prior at Pane. Again focused on bucolic simplicity and flawless ingredients it would be hard to find fault in this sandwich or its accompanying fennel and lettuce salad in a light vinaigrette but as good as the Prosciutto was I couldn’t help but think I liked the tomato slightly better…though I bet a version with all three would be stunning.

At this point quite full and with dinner plans that would turn out to be quite extensive Hillary stopped by and boxing up half of my sandwich asked if I’d like dessert – a suggestion I nearly declined until her smiling description of the Asian Pear Crostata sold me that it was something I should probably just go with – and go with it I did, a bargain basement $5 for superlative poached pear served over a rustic butter pastry and topped with vanilla infused cream. Light, delicate, and much like the pasta and the sandwich a perfect evidence of what one should expect from all of Chris Bianco’s restaurants – perfect ingredients largely unmanipulated and prepared just enough to extract maximal flavor.

A charming space with lovely service and food that speaks to everything I love about Italian it would be hard for me to find a single bad thing to say about Italian Restaurant and with an offer to stay and study as long as I liked the only thing that kept me from lingering at 4743 N 20th St was the fact that it was a little too warm for such a full stomach – it made me feel like I needed a nap; yet another sign of a very successful meal. I’ll be back, no doubt, and next time I’m going to run through that pasta menu at length.

Category(s): Arizona, Bodega, Bread Basket, Breakfast, Cartel Coffee, Coffee, Dessert, French Toast, Gnocchi, Italian, Italian Restaurant, Pancakes, Phoenix, Pork, RnR, Scottsdale

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