Delicious Italian food, reasonable prices and an expansive list of wine by the glass (33); Cuoco Pazzo (loose translation: crazy chef) has it all. I first met Chef Peter DeRuvo as chef de cuisine at Prado. When I heard he was teaming up with the Rana family to open Cuoco Pazzo, I wasted no time in paying a visit. The atmosphere at Cuoco Pazzo is warm and welcoming. The room is spacious and comfortable with wood floors, exposed brick and floor to-ceiling windows which are often open to enjoy the beautiful weather. A large chalkboard entices with daily specials, and a U-shaped bar surrounded by cozy red chairs invites you for a drink – maybe one of the 20 craft beers on tap (with appropriate corresponding glassware). It’s the perfect setting for Chef DeRuvo’s Roman-rooted menu combining traditional Italian with a modern style and an artful use of local ingredients.
The partners here are also hands-on. You may be greeted by affable co-owner Mario Rana, who is responsible for the wonderful variety of homemade ‘cellos. And it’s his son Mario who you can thank for the Italian-inspired cocktails, extensive beer selection and excellent wine list (including some Arizona favorites). On my initial visit, I sipped on a crisp Greek white wine (Skouras) while deciding what to order. That first night impressed me with dishes such as olive oil-braised octopus on a puree of ceci beans (chickpeas), crispy fritto misto (mixed fry of seafood) with fresh halibut, shrimp and calamari, and feather-light sheep’s milk ricotta gnocchi with porcini and rabbit ragù. Fresh egg fettuccine was tossed with peas, apple-wood smoked bacon, and Parmigiano-Reggiano and topped with a softly cooked farm egg with the yolk mixed in carbonara-style. Gilded with the chef’s suggestion of seared foie gras, it was decadent and divine.
Start with a stuzzichino (appetizer or snack). Saba, a tangy grape reduction made in-house, glazes crispy ribs with “Pete’s Special” spiced wine sauce accompanied by Gorgonzola and bacon slaw. I love the heat in a mélange of spicy crumbled sausage with tomatoes and peppers that grace a bowl of Venus clams. Humble polenta stands out – creamy with mascarpone, studded with juicy kernels of corn, and garnished with garlicky truffled mushrooms showered in Parmesan confetti. Because I love a chance to try a little bit of everything, the Grande Antipasti Misti (mixed antipasti) is a dream come true. Imagine a wooden cutting board covered in such treats as Sicilian olives, fennel salad, prosciutto, salami, pecorino cheese, pickled grapes, arugula, hazelnuts and pistachios. On every visit it is a unique, anticipated surprise. While it’s the perfect dish to share, I admit I can make a meal of this alone.
For insalatas, try the Bibb Caesar, a row of delicate butter lettuce leaves lightly dressed in a pecorino and garlic dressing and strewn with grilled-to-order croutons and shaved Parmesan. Beet salad features local ingredients in a colorful array of diced beets comingled with goat cheese, pistachios, citrus segments and honey with aged balsamic, and the classic Caprese showcases fresh burrata, local heirloom tomatoes and “Angelo’s Pesto.”
One of my weaknesses is homemade pasta and it’s no surprise it has a starring role on this Italian menu. One can choose from options such as gnocchi alla Norma with eggplant and chile, pumpkin tortelloni with duck confit and sage, or orecchiette with fennel-spiced sausage and escarole. The black taglioni is already a signature dish and it’s a beauty. Glossy squid-ink pasta is covered in a tableau of fresh seafood – sweet prawns, tender squid, and briny clams and mussels – all brought together in a spicy tomato sauce with a crunch of toasted bread crumbs.
It’s not easy to miss the specials, and you don’t want to. On the chalkboard you may see supplì, crispy Arborio rice balls seasoned with saffron and stuffed with cubes of mozzarella. Or there may be a Pesce del Giorno. One night I was lucky enough to have a fabulous whole roasted trout (caught in AZ’s White Mountains) stuffed with tangy lemon, tomatoes, herbs, and black garlic and paired with a savory celeriac puree. Steak and potato lovers won’t want to miss Bistecca alla Fiorentina, a juicy 16-oz. ribeye sliced and capped with melting disks of Chianti butter served with roasted potatoes and local spigarello (an Italian broccoli). Pasta specials might include pappardelle smothered in a meaty venison ragù and ricotta, or tajarin (a thin egg noodle) in a silky mascarpone sauce with radicchio and ground black pepper. The Affettati Misti (mixed cured meats) is a show-stopper, especially if you’re a charcuterie fan. You may find delights such as cranberry and pistachio mortadella, crispy head cheese, coppa, beef jerky, pickled beef tongue, smoked venison tasso, sopressata, chorizo or bresaola, with accents of pickled vegetables and mustard to cut the richness. What makes this more impressive? All the salumi are made in-house. Bring me another platter please.
For a savory finish, the same care goes into cheese plates. Arizona Rainbow Farms fromage blanc is paired with fig conserva and honey, California Humboldt Fog with amarena cherries and balsamic, and Italian Verde Capra with pumpkin-ginger compote. Something sweeter? How about chocolate hazelnut torte with espresso whipped cream or Nonna’s Lemoncello Cheesecake with candied citrus and berries. I personally can’t resist the Warm Soufflé Pecan Crepes filled with Italian meringue with Nutella and Sambuca chocolate sauce and a golden dusting of bee pollen. Finish up with a sampling of some of Mario’s lovely ‘cellos, from Meyer lemon or grapefruit to clementine or Mexican papaya.
Cuoco Pazzo is also open for lunch and has a Happy Hour with half price wine and a $6 bar menu. So what are you waiting for? Buon appetito!
ADDENDUM: As this goes to press, Chef DeRuvo is no longer at Cuoco Pazzo. However, I thoroughly enjoyed my meal on a return visit and still recommend this charming Italian spot. Most of the dishes above remain on the menu, and a new batch of salumi is curing. Future additions include porchetta (roasted pork belly stuffed with pork tenderloin, apples and fresh herbs) and rustic dishes such as braised rabbit or wild boar ragù with Chianti-stained pappardelle.
4175 N Goldwater Blvd.
Scottsdale, AZ 85251
Tuesday – Sunday
2PM-6PM Happy Hour
Article by Christina Barrueta
Photos by Michell Jonas Photography
Christina Barrueta is an avid Chowhound, passionate about food, wine and spirits. A transplant from Boston, she loves finding new locations to whet her appetite. You may follow her as Rubee on Chowhound.com or @Rubee100 on Twitter.