Restaurants & Bars 7

Sassi, North Scottsdale, AZ: a surprised and grateful rave! (long)

finlero | Mar 24, 2008 10:42 AM

So to start, I hope you'll bear with me for a quick story...

Several years ago now, my wife and I honeymooned in the Puglia region of Italy, the "heel and spur" of the boot. Exhausted after 12 hours of traveling, we arrived at our small boutique hotel just in time for lunch, and proceeded to enjoy one of the best meals we'd ever had. The restaurant was fairly refined for this historically poor region of the country, offering upscale takes on the traditional local cuisine. All this was epitomized when our waiter brought out a delicious plate of airy, deep-fried squash blossoms stuffed with ricotta, and told us (half jokingly, half reverently), "These taste just like the ones my grandmother makes, only...very fancy."

Throughout my recent dinner at Sassi in North Scottsdale, I had this quote stuck in my head. The meal was easily the closest I've ever experienced in the US to the tonier cuisine of Puglia, a transporting joy from start to finish.

We ordered the chef's tasting menu ($59pp for food + $49pp for wine pairings). In six courses, nearly everything was outstanding, consistently employing Puglian base recipes, subtle Arizonan accents, and an overarching Italian culinary philosophy of using a handful of high-quality, thoughtful ingredients and then having the humility to get out of the way and let the innate flavors come out.

A few of the highest highlights for food: house cured olives (fruity and surprisingly mild, a veritable carbon copy of the ones I remember from the open air markets of Puglia), mixed citrus and herb salad (assortment of a half-dozen types of citrus, with several fresh herbs, including fennel fronds, and a dash of sugar), grilled homemade sausage over creamy polenta (just what a secondo should be, a bold counterpoint to the light pasta course before it).

The all-Italian wine pairings were strikingly great as well, bouncing all over the boot, from a surprisingly complex Chardonnay from Piemonte, to a Cab/Merlot Super Tuscan, to my unexpected favorite, a caramelly La Corte Negroamaro/Primitivo blend from Puglia. Be warned, they are not stingy in the quality or quantity of the pairings, so be prepared to have someone else drive you home.

The meal wasn't perfect; there were a few chinks in the armor. The spinach pasta wrapper for the homemade beef ravioli was a little tough, perhaps a bit undercooked. The limoncello cheesecake had a slightly odd, freezer-burned aftertaste. And although I thought the wine pairings were generously chosen and poured for the tasting menu, the main wine list seemed almost absurdly expensive, on par with a high-end steakhouse for unreasonable markups.

I had heard a lot of buzz about Sassi's decor and location, which did not disappoint. But I have to say I simply wasn't prepared for the astonishing quality and honest authenticity of the chow. Having grown up in Phoenix before moving to the East Coast, I feel some serious Arizonan pride that my old hometown can now support restaurants of this caliber. Sassi has instantly become my favorite high-end dining destination in the Valley, and I eagerly look forward to going back.

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