Monteverde Chicago.

Fellow Top Chef fans will remember Sarah Grueneberg from season 9, where she was the runner-up to Paul Qui, who dominated the season like few other contestants have done, overshadowing her own skill set – especially when it came to fresh pastas. Chef Grueneberg left Chicago’s Spiaggia about a year ago to open her own place, Monteverde, in Chicago’s West Loop, and I finally got to try it out Friday night (and chat with Sarah herself) while in town for the Under Armour game. It could not have been any more impressive, not just for the pasta but for the quality of everything that went on every plate.

The menu is short but covers a lot of ground, from small plates to a half dozen pastas (three traditional dishes and three of their own creation) to a few substantial mains, and they accommodated me as a solo diner with some smaller portions so I could try more things. I started with the fiore di zucca, fried squash blossoms, a special right now since they’re in season and a very traditional Italian delicacy. The squash blossoms are extremely delicate and usually must be cooked within a day of their harvest; they’re stuffed with ricotta, battered, and fried, in this case with a tempura-like coating and served with a grilled vegetable relish and bright pea hummus underneath it. One was plenty – they’re so rich – but a plate typically contains three for the table. I rarely get to eat these so there was no question I was ordering it, and it met expectations largely because of the ricotta. I assume Monteverde makes their own but if not they’re using some of the best around because the texture is just perfect.

The single best dish I had on the night was the tomato salad, which is Monteverde’s riff on an insalata caprese, here using several kinds of tomatoes, some whole and some blanched and salted; apricot slices; burrata, which is mozzarella wrapped around a filling of cream that was decadent; basil; and za’atar seasoning. The tomatoes were singing – bright, sweet, just a hint of acidity, like they’d been picked an hour before. The best restaurants I’ve ever been to around the U.S. have all had one thing in common: they care about produce enough to get items like these tomatoes. And yes, the burrata was incredible, but it ended up playing second fiddle to the tomatoes.

That salad is one of the piattini or small plates on the menu, along with two other items I tried. The grilled artichoke crostini comes with fontina fonduta (fontina cheese melted with milk and/or cream and Parmiggiano Reggiano to make it into a sauce), more ricotta, a sweet Italian onion called cipolla di tropea, and shaved summer truffle. I had just one piece but the balance was perfect across the various elements because I could still appreciate the quality of the bread underneath, which had a creamy texture on the interior but the hard crust of good old-world recipes.

The other small plate I tried, specifically at Chef Sarah’s suggestion, was the fegattini calabrese, wok-fired chicken livers – yes, wok-fired – with tomato, peperoncino, corn, fava beans, shallot, and polenta ‘fries’ around the outside. Sarah said customers compare it to an upscale chicken parmesan, which fits with the tomato/chicken combination, but I also found it reminded me of the Ecuadorian dish lomo saltado, where steak is served in a stir-fried dish with French fries cooked in the same pot or skillet. It’s a true one-pot meal, with your protein, starch, and lots of vegetables within it, hearty like a winter stew, bringing richness from the livers and unexpected sweetness from the corn and the polenta.

Chicken livers with tomato, shallot, fava beans, corn, and polenta "fries" at @monteverdechi

A photo posted by Keith Law (@mrkeithlaw) on

Choosing one pasta dish at a restaurant known already for its pastas was not simple, but sitting at the bar I could see the two chefs making the pasta dishes to order, including the “twin” ravioli, where each piece contains two pockets with fillings, one with eggplant, pinenuts, and more ricotta, the other with lamb sausage, yogurt (very little), and charred onion. They’re served in a piquant red sauce with olive oil and a crushed pepper mix, although there’s just enough sauce to coat the top of the dumplings. The pasta itself remains the focus of the dish, as it’s an incredibly strong dough (they use whole eggs and egg yolks) that the pasta chefs roll out very thin for the dumplings; I’ve made pasta at home a bunch and I doubt I’ve gotten close to this kind of dough strength before, because if I rolled anything that thin it would tear. Of the two fillings, I preferred the lamb sausage and onion, which sort of gave the dish an inside-out pasta and meatballs connotation.

I tweeted some pics while I was at the restaurant and several of you said I had to try the cannoli (but to leave the gun). Monteverde makes its cannolis in-house and fills them to order with sweetened ricotta, dipping one end in dark chocolate bits and the other in bright-green Sicilian pistachios, with a painted swipe of chocolate sauce and some bitter orange bits (candied, I think) on the plate. I grew up strongly disliking cannolis, because most Italian bakeries on Long Island didn’t make their own shells, which meant they had all the texture and flavor of fried wonton strips, and used lower-quality ricotta that gave the filling a cheesy flavor rather than a sweet one. Monteverde does it all from scratch and it shows, and the part with the chocolate bits brought me back to eating straciatella (chocolate chip) gelato in my last trip to Italy in 1999.

Ricotta cannoli with pistachios on one end and dark chocolate on the other @monteverdechi

A photo posted by Keith Law (@mrkeithlaw) on

As you’d expect Monteverde has a long wine list, but I’m not much of an oenophile and went for their cocktail menu instead. They do a take on one of my all-time favorite cocktails, the negroni, using mezcal in place of the gin and Luxardo bitter in place of traditional Campari (although Luxardo and Campari are very similar, with Luxardo bringing a more bitter and less sweet profile). It was a good way to riff on a classic, preserving the essential features, with the bitter flavors out front, with a subtle change underneath I doubt I would have identified as mezcal if I hadn’t known ahead of time.

So, I had a pretty good meal at Monteverde and while I did receive some special treatment I would have said the same things about the food anyway. I can’t imagine anyone who enjoys high-quality food, let alone high-quality Italian food, walking away unsatisfied. There’s enough diversity on the menu for just about anybody (I think you could be gluten-free here pretty easily, in fact) and every dish I had was just one bright flavor after another. I’ll certainly be going back.

The rest of my trip to Chicago featured places I’ve been before; I had coffee at Intelligentsia, as I always do when I’m in Chicago, and then stopped the Tortas Frontera location at O’Hare on my rebooked flight out (my original flight on Southwest out of Midway was cancelled). Frontera is one of the best airport food options in the country, with tortas, a pressed Mexican sandwich on spongy telera bread, made to order inside of ten minutes. I tried a new option this time, the vegetarian torta with mushrooms, black beans, arugula, and goat cheese, because I had to atone for my gluttony the night before. I’ve never had a bad sandwich at Tortas Frontera but I do find their sandwiches with meat a little heavy, whereas this turned out to be just right, especially since my flight was delayed over two hours by thunderstorms and I was on the plane for close to five hours in total.

San Francisco and Los Angeles eats.

The San Francisco pizzeria del Popolo is run by Jon Darsky, who worked for a little while in player development and scouting for Cleveland and another MLB org … I forgot which one because we need to talk about how good the food was. The pizza was outstanding, both the dough – thin, not quite Neapolitan thin but close to it, with just the right bit of chew too it – and the homemade sausage that they use as a topping. The menu is simple, with about a half-dozen starters and a half-dozen or so pizza options, nothing more, which is more than enough when the pizza is this good. Jon, whom I didn’t know before that visit, sent out their Brussels sprouts starter, charred but still firm and bright green, with salva cremasco, shaved turnips, and hazelnuts; as well as the ridiculously luscious coconut-lime sorbet, since I was with Ian Miller (the bassist for Puig Destroyer and Kowloon Walled City), who is vegan. Del Popolo was on that Food & Wine pizzeria list I’ve mentioned several times and have been slowly eating my way through, and it’s one of the best I’ve hit.

Also on that list is the very highly-regarded flour + water in the Mission district, although I get the sense their pastas are better than their pizzas. I went with the margherita, feeling a bit uninspired by the other options, and what I got was just sort of average – the tomato sauce was pureed too evenly, the crust didn’t have much char or good chew, and the whole thing was a little bland. It’s a good pizza relative to most, but compared to the other places on that F&W list – Bianco, Keste, even Roberta’s which somehow missed that list – it’s just okay. The salad I got, however, was outstanding: curly endive with Meyer lemon vinaigrette, artichokes, cardoons, taggiasca olives, & fried capers. It was a big reminder that California produce is often the best produce of all.

I was famished when I got into San Francisco on Wednesday afternoon after appearing on a panel at the Stanford GSB sports analytics conference, so I went to Cotogna for a big meal rather than trying to eat light and hold on for dinner. Cotogna is fairly new and I found it on that Eater list of the 38 “most essential” (whatever) restaurants in the U.S. for 2016, a list I’ll mention a few times in this post. Cotogna does “rustic” Italian cuisine, but it’s not peasant food by any stretch – the restaurant includes a giant cast-iron, wood-fired hearth for spit-roasting meats, and a pizza oven where I presume they’re also baking their ridiculous focaccia ($4 for a giant strip of it). Their broccoli starter, which is so new it’s not on their online menu, was an out-of-this-world homage to my favorite brassica: the florets are cooked two ways and are tossed with neonata (a southern Italian condiment of small fish preserved in vinegar with garlic and chilis), then are served on a layer of bright green broccoli and parsley puree, seasoned with espelette, and topped with shaved bottarga and fried kale leaves. The chef de cuisine, Chris Marcino, was kind enough to explain the dish to me – also, he’s a Phillies fan – and said they pan-fry some of the florets and broccoli leaves, and then cook other florets and small stems in a cast-iron skillet in their pizza oven to get some caramelization. It’s ornate, but it’s like a monument to broccoli.

For the main course, I went with what I think is Cotogna’s signature pasta dish, agnolotti del plin, a classic Piemontese dish of small pockets of pasta around a filling of mixed pork, veal, and often turkey or chicken. Cotogna roasts the meats before grinding them into the filling for the paper-thing pasta, and then uses the juices from the meats to make the sauce (sugo d’arrosto, the “sauce of the roasting”) for the dish. The dish probably originated as a way to use meat scraps that weren’t enough for a full meal, but this is a plate I’d fly across the country to eat. I’m not treating Eater’s list as gospel, but they absolutely nailed it on Cotogna.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the coffee I had in San Francisco, where you can’t swing a cat around by its tail without hitting three hipsters discussing their favorite artisan roaster. I finally got to a Four Barrel location, even though I’ve been drinking their coffee on and off for years – it’s served at Giant Coffee in Phoenix, and I’ve bought beans from them online. It’s … well, it’s great coffee, really. I happen to really like their Friendo Blendo espresso mix, which varies seasonally but is usually half an East African bean (Ethiopian this time) and half a Central American (Guatemalan). I also stopped by a Sightglass shop for a cup of their Ethiopian coffee, which I found a little underwhelming just because I expected more brightness and fruit. I liked the fact that their space, right down the street from flour + water, is so bright.

Moving south to the LA area, I chased Guerrilla Tacos (also on that Eater 38 list) for two days before I finally caught them for a lunch that was absolutely worth the effort. The truck typically parks in front of some local coffee shops – Cognoscenti and Blacktop appear to be the current favorites, although they’ve been near a Blue Bottle location befroe – and are only open 10-2 on days they’re out. The menu changes daily, with four taco options and an agua fresca each day. The day I went the menu featured a breakfast taco with scrambled eggs, pancetta, pinto beans, and queso fresco; an ahi poke tostada with uni and scallions; and a sweet potato taco with feta, scallions, and almonds. The breakfast taco was my favorite of the three, in no small part because the flour tortilla was so good (made with lard, perhaps?), and the sweet potato taco was also superb, even though I’d never have thought to put feta with sweet potatoes. The eggs really benefited from the salt and spice in the pancetta and beans; I do love eggs in most forms but plain scrambled eggs are a little too boring. The tuna poke was more like sashimi and should have been sliced more thinly so it was easier to eat, although the quality of the fish itself was obviously very high.

Blacktop Coffee sometimes uses beans from Sightglass, but the day I was there they were using some local private roaster; their menu couldn’t be simpler as you order your espresso “black” for $3 or “white” (whatever milk-based drink you want) for $4. The coffee was good, well-balanced with good body, but should have been a little hotter. They also have a toast program, because of course they do.

I mentioned on Twitter that I had a serendipitous encounter at ink., the main restaurant of Top Chef Season 6 winner Michael Voltaggio; I was sitting at the chef’s counter when Voltaggio came out to speak to the diner next to me, which turned out to be season 7 winner Kevin Sbraga, whose namesake Philly restaurant I visited (and loved) in January. Anyway, I’ve been dying to get to ink. for a few years now, and just barely sneaked it in this trip – I was so tired I didn’t want to make the nearly hourlong drive from my hotel, but I figured I’d regret not going. I had four dishes, and three were just out of sight, stuff I couldn’t make at home and that was unlike most restaurant dishes I’ve had elsewhere. Their twist on cacio e pepe involved paper-thin vermicelli made of celery root, served over shima aji (striped jack or cocinero) sashimi with a truffle coulis, taking an Italian concept and making it over as a Japanese dish, pasta without pasta, lighter than a wheat-centric dish but more satisfying than raw fish would be by itself. Their octopus with “ink. shells” (a play on words, since the pasta is made with ink), shaved fennel, and paprika was a little more traditional but still exceptional because the octopus itself was well-cooked, meaty just up to the edge of toughness without crossing over, as masticably satisfying as red meat but lighter and almost sweet thanks to the browning on the exterior. And the dessert … the deconstructed apple pie dessert, with crumbled shortbread, apple gelee, apples, and “burnt wood” semifreddo (it had a slightly smoky flavor but if you hadn’t told me I would have said it was fior di latte) was just unreal. If you got everything in one bite, it was apple pie a la mode, but with new textures and a brighter flavor. I had one dish I didn’t care for; the radishes with togarashi-miso butter were not at all what I expected, just plain, whole radishes, served with shiso leaves to wrap them and dip them in the butter. We grow radishes in the backyard every year, so this was nothing I couldn’t do at home; I expected some kind of preparation of the radishes, at least, but the server noticed I didn’t eat much of the dish and took it off the bill without a word from me. I also had one of their house cocktails, a rye drink with cardamaro bitters, burnt orange, maple, and toasted pecan bitters that gave the whole drink the aroma of brown butter. I could drink this every night very happily.

I tried another spot on that Eater list, the Thai restaurant Night + Market Song, and was … confused, I guess. I don’t know authentic Thai food that well; I know Americanized Thai, and I think I know when something is more or less Americanized, but this menu mostly comprised foods that were new to me (not a bad thing), and somehow I ended up ordering a lot of meat. The “boxing chicken” is gai yang, a street food authentic to Bangkok that is coated in a wet rub of cilantro, sugar, garlic, pepper, and fish sauce, and then grilled until the skin is crispy. Night + Market Song’s version is all thigh meat, which is the best part of the bird anyway, and comes with papaya salad (medium or hot; medium was plenty hot for me) and sticky rice, which was served in plastic wrap and came out in a slab. You’re supposed to use your hands (fine) to roll pieces into a ball, but this slab was so tough I couldn’t make that happen. I also thought the knife work on the papaya salad was really rough – some vegetables weren’t even cut through. The pork toro, grilled fatty pig neck served with a chile-soy dip, was a good starter, salty like bacon but chewier like jowl meat, although it merely added to the sense that I was just eating way too much meat.

Jon & Vinny’s is an Italian restaurant and pizzeria, located across from their famous meatery Animal, in Fairfax, with a focus on southern Italian fare and a lot of dishes that showcase great produce. I went with a friend of mine who lives in the area, and he ordered the LA Woman pizza, essentially a margherita with burrata in lieu of the mozzarella, with a dough I’d put in between those of del Popolo and flour + water for overall taste and texture. It was the other stuff that set J&V’s apart, though: their meatballs are huge yet evenly cooked, rich but not too dense, served with enormous slabs of garlic bread in a garlicky tomato sauce with a pile of ricotta on the side of the plate. That could easily be a meal on its own, but we kept going. The salad of shaved zucchini with arugula, fennel, hazelnuts, meyer lemon vinaigrette, and a blizzard of shaved pecorino pepato, a sheep’s milk cheese with peppercorns in it, was a big pile of spring – very bright flavors, vibrant green colors, tangy and sharp with a hint of sweetness from the fennel and the nuts. The bruschetta was really about the bread; the tomatoes were certainly good, but the bread was a sponge of olive oil by the time I arrived and I was debating whether to eat it or exfoliate my face with it. (I ate it.) The fried scallions were amazing and stayed crunchy even as they cooled because of the cornmeal coating, although we overordered and didn’t expect the giant pile that arrived at the table. For dessert, because we are pigs, I got the Italian flag (rainbow) cookies, which were sublime thanks to the dark chocolate on top, although I didn’t get any real almond flavor from the sponge cake layers, while Jay got the cream-filled donut which was a tad better than your local Krispy Kreme’s version.

I also want to give props to Jason Kang over at Seoulmate, right next to Blair Field in Long Beach with a new location out in Fullerton; this wasn’t my first meal there but I don’t go to Long Beach without eating there. Seoulmate is fast-casual Korean food, both traditional dishes like bulgogi (Jason’s mentioned some of the recipes are based on family versions) and Korean tacos and burritos. Everything is top-notch, but it’s the preparation of the meats that separates Seoulmate from other Asian taco places I’ve hit; I had the pork bulgogi this time, pork belly heavily marinated in a spicy soy and ginger mixture that starts to inundate the rice underneath, served with kimchi (also spicy) and a small salad. I’ve also had the tacos, the beef bulgogi, and the bibimbap on previous visits, and can vouch that they’re all excellent, with the two bulgogis my favorites. Jason’s a reader, but I promise I wouldn’t recommend his place if I didn’t genuinely like the food.

Arizona eats, October 2015 edition.

My second and final Arizona Fall League post for this year is up for Insiders, covering Dom Smith, Clint Frazier, Jake Reed, Jason Garcia, and more.

The biggest news in Phoenix food has been the arrival of the Noble Bread Company, crafted artisan loaves of classic European breads, so good that every restaurant I tried all week that served bread bought it from Noble. (One such restaurant: the estimable FnB, still outstanding and one of the best bets in town if you want to eat a lot of vegetables and still feel like you had a real meal.) Noble now has a second spot, the Noble Eatery on McDowell, where the menu changes daily and includes two or three sandwiches, a flatbread option, and a salad. I went with their open-faced tuna salad sandwich, made with olive oil rather than mayo and including chickpeas and potatoes, served on a dark, crusty peasant loaf; with three slices and a huge portion of the tuna it was more than a meal for me, closer to two. The bread is just to die for – this ranks among the best breads I’ve ever tasted, with the texture expert bread bakers describe as “creamy” inside a crackling crust.

nocawich reopened in a new location in Tempe on College Avenue, right in the heart of ASU’s campus, this summer, with their justifiably renowned fried chicken sandwich still on the menu, as well as a giant patty melt served on good rye sandwich bread and triple-fried French fries that are out of another world entirely. On this trip I tried their breakfast, getting an oversized egg and chorizo sandwich with arugula, avocado, tomato, mayo (not much), and cheese on a sesame bagel from H&H in New York City. Everything Elliott creates there is amazing, and if I wasn’t behaving myself a little bit this week I would have grabbed one of the incredible pastries available – he has a pastry chef fly in from Portland to make them weekly. Other than nocawich I stuck to morning favorites on this trip: crêpe bar, the Hillside Spot, Matt’s Big Breakfast, Cartel Coffee Lab, and Giant Coffee.

My frequent dining partner-in-crime Nick Piecoro introduced me to a new taco/burger place in Arcadia called the Stand, where the menu is very simple: a burger, three types of tacos, hand-cut fries, and shakes. I tried all three tacos, for research purposes of course, and would recommend the short rib and chicken tacos but not the vegetable taco, which couldn’t hold the fillings in and was decidedly flat in flavor, with a lot in it (mostly quinoa and some sort of winter squash) but nothing that really popped in flavor. It needed something with umami to bring it together.

Speaking of that fifth taste, Umami in Tempe (very close to nocawich, at 7th and Mill) does ramen, and a few other things, but mostly ramen, customizable to order with five choices of broths and about a dozen or so toppings or add-ons, including chicken, roast pork, and pork belly. I went with the pork and chicken bone broth, roast pork, and a soft-cooked egg, all of which came out perfectly – the broth itself was a little salty but full of body and depth of flavor. They could probably stand to use better noodles, though; these tasted like they came right out of the package, even though more hip ramen joints in other towns have gone with fresh ramen noodles instead. The ramen, a small seaweed salad, and an iced tea ran about $13 before tip, and it was plenty of food for one.

La Piazza al Forno isn’t new – it’s been open since around the time I first moved to Arizona in 2010 – but its location in downtown Glendale, next to Cuff (one of my favorite spots on the west side), isn’t that convenient to any of the ballparks, so I hadn’t tried it till this week. Their specialty is Neapolitan-style pizzas, and they have the VPN certification that is supposed to go only to places that correctly follow the standards of Neapolitan pizza … although in my experience the VPN designation means virtually practically nothing. La Piazza’s pizzas are thin and they use top-quality ingredients, including San Marzano tomatoes and the option of using mozzarella di bufala, but the pies’ centers aren’t wet as they should be in Neapolitan pizza, and they put the basil on before baking the pizzas so it comes out very dark and loses its bright, faintly sweet flavor. Still, if you’re looking for pizza on the west side of Phoenix it’s this and Grimaldi’s and nothing else I’d recommend.

My one real disaster meal of the week was at a new modern Italian restaurant in Old Town called Evo, where the focus is on handmade pastas but not on service or even execution. The concepts for the dishes are sound, but neither item I ordered was well-constructed, and one of them came out wrong (spinach, which I can’t eat, instead of the promised escarole, an essential ingredient in the dish). The white-bean hummus with the roasted cauliflower was too thin and coarse, and didn’t add anything to the cauliflower itself, which was beautifully caramelized. The house-made orecchiette in the main course were shaped incorrectly – more like thimbles, so that the individual pieces couldn’t pick up any portions of the sauce or the other items in the dish. Even the fennel sausage in the dish was off, cut into inch-long rectangular blocks rather than broken up into smaller pieces when cooked. My meal also took forever; I don’t think my main course was fired until I reminded my server about it, a half hour after I ordered, despite the fact that the restaurant was almost empty. I would guess that EVO will be gone before I get back in March given the food and the rent at that location.

Still good: FnB, especially their socca with pickled butternut squash and cultured butter, and their salad of persimmons, pecans, pomegranates, and shaved Parmesan with mixed greens; and Welcome Chicken and Donuts, although I think the next time I go there I’ll try the chicken without any sauce at all. I tried a chocolate-glazed donut with pistachios and what I think were rose petal-flavored marshmallows; it was good but the donut tasted a little past its peak. Crêpe Bar in Tempe (Elliott and Rural) appears to be expanding, and they still bring out all kinds of little bites that the kitchen has thrown together. I can also verify that Citizen Public House still makes a mean negroni. The Revival in Tempe has closed; however, former executive chef Kelly Fletcher is now at Phoenix landmark El Chorro as chef de cuisine.

Cincinnati eats.

My latest ranking of the top 50 prospects in baseball is up for Insiders, and I held a Klawchat this afternoon. Also, my latest boardgame review, of Flea Market, is up over at Paste.

I was only in Cincinnati for about 32 hours, but managed to squeeze in a fantastic meal at Sotto right downtown and to find a gem of a coffee shop in Collective Espresso a few blocks north.

Sotto was a recommendation from the unofficial mayor of Cincinnati, C. Trent Rosencrans, who obviously knows what he’s talking about and couldn’t have made a better suggestion to me – this is my kind of food. Sotto’s menu is fundamentally Italian, but with top-quality ingredients that keep most of the dishes very simple and clean, as well as immaculate execution. The menu is straightforward, with four main sections: bruschettas, salads, primi (pasta dishes), and secondi (meats/entrees). I went with three dishes, probably a little too much food for me but in total about right for an average person’s appetite, and those plus a cocktail (rum, lime, mint, bitters) ran $48 before tip. I sat at the food bar, so I ended up with a bonus dish of their garlic and olive oil bruschetta, grilled right in front of me on their giant wood-fired grill, followed by the goat cheese/honey/hazelnut bruschetta, all excellent but at heart about the bread, like a Tuscan loaf (but with salt), brushed with EVOO and lined with grill marks.

The salad was Sotto’s take on a Caesar salad, using baby kale leaves and julienned lacinato kale leaves, with house-made croutons made from local bakery Blue Oven’s bread and a garlic/Parmiggiano dressing. (I didn’t ask if they used anchovies, but the menu didn’t say so and that’s neither authentic nor particularly Italian.) The pasta dish, cappellacci with braised short rib meat inside, were unbelievably light, with the pasta wrapping on the dumplings thinner than any Italian filled pasta I’ve had, with a texture more like that of (good) wontons than typical ravioli or similar dishes. Sotto served it in a sauce of Amish butter (only some of which ended up on my shirt) and thyme, which was rich enough that I barely needed any of it on the pasta. I’m dessert would have been wonderful but I ate everything I ordered and was fit to burst by that point. This would easily have been a $70-80 meal in a larger city and everything I ate was spectacular from ingredients to execution. I can also verify, since the chef showed me, that they have this amazing immersion circulator-type device that allows them to keep pasta water constantly boiling, with one side kept limited to gluten-free pastas to avoid cross-contamination.

Collective Espresso has a few locations, at least one of which serves brunch on the weekends, but I met a friend at the tiny original shop on Woodward the morning of the Futures Game. They use Blacksmith Espresso beans from Louisville roaster Quills for their espresso, a blend of three beans from Brazil, Peru, and Colombia that produces a balanced shot with a rich texture. I also sampled one of CE’s peach scones, which was more like a cake but served its purpose well (I don’t drink coffee on an empty stomach). I also left Collective Espresso with a bag of Rwanda Inzovu beans from Deeper Roots Coffee, a local roastery; the beans are out of this world, a huge peach bomb with nutmeg and cocoa notes, and DR roasted them to what seems like the perfect color.

San Diego eats, 2014 edition.

I have been writing the things for Insiders, on the Justin Upton trade and the Derek Norris/Jesse Hahn trade just in the last 24 hours.

The best meal in San Diego, our annual big writers’ night out, was at Juniper & Ivy, Richard Blais’ restaurant in Little Italy and one of my favorite restaurants in the country. I arranged the dinner well ahead of time, so we had a prix-fixe menu that included some items (like the amazing mac and cheese with house-made pasta and fontina) that aren’t on the typical menu. The takeoff on the Yodel is a regular item, though, and it’s bonkers … I split one with USA Today football writer Lindsay Jones and it didn’t stand a chance. There was a second dessert, not listed on the menu, that had to be tasted to be believed: blood-orange gelée, frozen yogurt, clementine supremes, lemongrass ice cream, and shards of roasted-citrus ice. I wanted to take that gelée home, but was afraid I couldn’t get a pound of it through airport security. The staff went all-out for us, clearly, and the service was exemplary. I reviewed J&I in full in March, and have now eaten there three more times, never once walking away less than fully satisfied.

If you aren't jealous, you should be. @juniperandivy @richardblais

A photo posted by Keith Law (@mrkeithlaw) on

Bird Rock Coffee Roasters, based in La Jolla, opened a second location a month ago, right across the street from Juniper & Ivy, and it’s now the best coffee option in the city, a small-batch roaster that is also the only direct-trade outlet in San Diego. I had an espresso macchiatto there each morning, but they also offer pour-overs and Chemex brews as well.

My other dinners in San Diego came at Cucina Urbana and Prep Kitchen, both strong, with Cucina Urbana my preference among the two. A new, upscale but reasonably-priced Italian trattoria, Cucina Urbana features a deep menu of pizzas, house-made pastas, and a slew of small plates, including the daily “polenta board,” assembled tableside with a ragù spread on top of a thick smear of creamy polenta on a wooden board. My pasta dish, bucatini with tomato, guanciale, cabbage, chili pepper, and a poached egg, was a great southern-Italian comfort-food dish, satisfying in texture (al dente, with the added bite from the jowl meat and the cabbage; smooth from the egg mixing with the tomato) and flavor (obvious), with just the right portion size between the starter polenta and the fact that I wasn’t leaving without trying the chocolate donuts with hazelnut filling, which didn’t even need the passion fruit dipping sauce except maybe to cool them off enough to eat them.

Prep Kitchen was a little more hit-or-miss. The yellowtail crudo was actually a slight disappointment, with a not-subtle fishy note marking the tuna as less than perfectly fresh, and the chocolate “budino” wasn’t a budino (an Italian custard, often thickened with cornstarch as well as eggs) but a warm chocolate cake served in a mason jar, but the pumpkin bread pudding had great balance of sweet and savory flavors without turning to mush, and the porchetta (which appears to be off the menu already) was superb if slightly fattier than I’ve had elsewhere.

I grabbed lunch twice at Bottega Americano, located just east of Petco Park in a cute space that combines a little Italian market and deli counter with a sit-down restaurant. Despite the grammatical error in its name, the restaurant serves excellent sandwiches and salads and makes a legit French macaron as well. The speck (smoked prosciutto), fuyu persimmon, shallot marmellata, arugula, and goat cheese sandwich on olive bread was my favorite for flavor, although I found it tough to tear through the speck, which they need to slice more thinly before serving; the olive-oil poached tuna sandwich with yellow pepper aioli and farmer’s egg (I didn’t know farmers laid eggs, but perhaps that’s a new mutation) was much easier to eat but needed more acidity somewhere in the mix. That was a better option than Kebab House, which is outstanding if you’re looking for cheap eats near the ballpark but was much heavier and I think a little overloaded with garlic.

I am in love with the Mission for breakfast in San Diego, and ended up eating there three mornings out of four; the one variation was at the Fig Tree Cafe in Hillcrest, where I had a disappointing salmon benedict with a potato/arugula side dish that couldn’t live up to the Mission’s amazing rosemary potatoes. I know the Tractor Room gets raves for its brunches, but I wasn’t there any morning when it was open for breakfast and have to save that for a future trip.

Keste and more NYC eats.

I’m chatting today at 1 pm ET.

In the last three weeks, I’ve hit three more places from Food and Wine‘s list of the 48 best pizzerias in the country (I don’t know why they chose 48, and it’s 47 now anyway with one closed), and I’ve at least found one rival to Pizzeria Bianco for the best pizzeria in the country, as well as hitting the first of the four spots from the list located in Brooklyn.

Keste, located on Bleecker in Greenwich Village, is run by an Italian pizzaiolo who was born and raised outside of Naples and learned the craft of pizza-making in that city, the capital of pizza in Italy. The style is true Neapolitan, with a thin crust and a soft center so that the crust struggles to support the toppings, and Keste does it correctly, something few places that boast of serving “authentic” Neapolitan pizzas manage to do. The menu is quite large, with a huge selection of pizzas with tomato sauce, a small selection of “white” pizzas, and a number of gluten-free options. My friend Toby and I ordered two pizzas and split them – the margherita with buffalo mozzarella and the daily special with burrata, prosciutto, and truffle oil.

The crusts on both were spectacular, exactly as promised, with a little char on the exterior, good tooth on the exterior crust, and just enough underneath to keep the toppings off the plate and give some texture contrast. The special was among the best pizzas I’ve ever had thanks to the creaminess and bright flavor of the burrata, and the salty-but-not-too-salty prosciutto, as well as the hint of truffle flavor that didn’t overwhelm any of the other ingredients. The margherita was notable more for the brightness of the tomatoes than anything else, with good balance between that and the mozzarella di bufala. The flavors on both pizzas were loud, in a good way, and everything was balanced and fresh and just incredible.

A few weeks ago, I managed to sneak into Co., the pizzeria founded by Jim Lahey of no-knead bread fame, for dinner with my family on a trip to Boston. The crust was outstanding, as you’d expect, but the rest of the experience fell very short for us. For one thing, the pizzas were small and sparsely topped, skimping especially on cheese, which is kind of the essential ingredient when pizza is the entree because it’s the only real protein source on any pizza without meat. For another, I am not sure when I have ever been in a colder restaurant than Co. was on that night – it could not have been over 65 degrees in there – and it was incredibly loud. I was more impressed with the bread and olive oil starter, which does a better job of showing off Lahey’s technique, than I was with either of the pizzas we ordered. I’ll tolerate atmosphere issues if the food is amazing, but the crust was just good, not enough to make me want to deal with the conditions there.

Franny’s in Brooklyn was an outright disappointment, however – so sparsely topped that it was more like having bread for lunch than pizza, with almost nothing beyond a thin layer of tomato sauce on top. The crust was gorgeous, with some blistering on the exterior, great tooth to the exterior, and a good contrast between the edge and the interior. But man, you need to put something on top of the pizza to get me to fight my way down Flatbush to come eat at your place.

Moving on from pizza … After Keste, Toby dragged me kicking and screaming to Grom, a gelateria (one of two Groms in the city, plus a summer location in Central Park) that imports the product from Italy. Their commitment to product quality is insane, with organic eggs, spring water for their sorbets, and fruit from their own farm in Costigliole d’Asti. And the gelato is amazing – the dark chocolate “sorbet,” made with egg yolks and Colombian chocolate but no dairy, is as intense as eating a bar of very dark chocolate but with the creamy texture of actual gelato; the caffè flavor uses Guatemalan coffee beans to create a dark coffee flavor that doesn’t hide the coffee behind sugar and cream. It’s a hell of an experience even when you’re already overstuffed with pizza. (I also love that their URL is; too bad walla.ce isn’t available.)

Culture Espresso on 38th Street doesn’t roast its own coffee, but buys from some of the best roasters in the country – currently using coffees from Heart roasters in Portland, Oregon, a micro-roaster that specializes in very light roasts of single-estate coffees. Culture is currently using a blend of two coffees, an Ethiopian and a Central American (I think the barista said Colombian), which produced a medium-bodied shot that still had the bright strawberry notes of the east African half of the blend.

More Phoenix eats + recent reads.

I’ll be on Baseball Tonight on ESPN this evening (Tuesday) at 9:30 ET/6:30 Arizona time. I’ve also got a new Insider column up about a conversation I had with Brandon Belt about his swing. Today’s Behind the Dish podcast features Baseball-Reference founder Sean Forman talking WAR, defense, R-level, and more.

First up, some local food notes.

Tanzy calls itself a “Mediterranean” restaurant, but it’s just upscale Italian-influenced food, done very well at slightly elevated prices because of its location in the Kierland area of Scottsdale. It’s in the same shopping complex on the east side of Scottsdale Road that houses Press Coffee, True Food Kitchen, and yet another location of Grimaldi’s Pizza, across from the Kierland Commons mall itself.

I took the girls there for dinner on Thursday, knowing it would be our last chance for a family meal for a week because of games and travel, and we went a little overboard, getting a good bit more food than required. We started with one of their antipasto platters, this one including fresh mozzarella that is pulled for you tableside and seasoned with your choice of four different salts. The mozzarella itself was fine, probably best because it was warm, but it was probably the least interesting thing on the platter, which also included basil pesto (nut-free!), olive tapenade, dried figs, tomatoes marinated in garlic and olive oil, strawberries, and crusty pieces of country bread. This became my daughter’s dinner, since she’s never met a fresh mozzarella dish she didn’t love, and her only complaint was that the tomatoes were too spicy because of the raw garlic.

My wife ordered two starters as her dinner, an eggplant/mozzarella/tomato stack that she loved and that I didn’t try because I don’t love eggplant, and the fried brussels sprouts, an enormous serving of the brassicas lightly breaded (tempura-like), drizzled with a mustardy aioli and served with a sweet and sour dipping sauce. I went with the risotto, which wasn’t risotto at all, lacking any of the creamy sauce that makes that dish so distinctive (formed from the blending of stock with starch granules that separate from the rice during the slow cooking process).

Where Tanzy excelled was in desserts and cocktails. My daughter picked the white chocolate Chambourd crème brulee – the child has a sophisticated palate, which should cause absolute hell for any future suitors – and it was absurdly good, with a perfect texture beneath the sugar-glass shell. For a drink, I tried their “spice and ice,” made with five-year aged Barbados rum, mango puree, and their own ginger-habanero syrup, with a seven-spice mixture on the rim of the glass. It was odd to drink something so bright and sweet (almost too much so) only to have it bite back at the finish.

I’d go back there, ordering a little differently, but I think I could do much better for my dollar even just within Scottsdale – Citizen Public House and Searsucker both offer superior food at comparable or lower price points. Tanzy does have a more reasonably-priced lunch menu with sandwich options that might be a better way to experience their food.

Essence Bakery in Tempe popped on my radar recently because local foodies have praised their croissants and macarons, the latter of which is a small obsession of mine. (I can’t quite get them right, although my last batch was close, just a touch too moist inside so they couldn’t hold up when filled.) I met a friend at Essence, which is on University just east of Hardy (right near ASU), for breakfast over the weekend and was very impressed by the quality of their ingredients – even if you just want your basic EMPT* breakfast, this is one of the best options in the area.

* Eggs, meat, potatoes, toast – the breakfast of champions.

Eggs are eggs as long as they’re fresh and cooked correctly, which these were. Essence has its own variety of breakfast sausage, and the potatoes on the plate aren’t generic hash browns or “breakfast potatoes” (whatever the funk that is), but come as a mashed potato cake, like a knish but softer inside. The toast options include sliced, toasted baguette, which comes with a little bit of what I assume was homemade jam. There isn’t a ton of seating, but I didn’t have to wait to get a table; if people realize how good this place is, though, I could see that becoming a problem.

I don’t believe I ever mentioned Giant Coffee in downtown Phoenix, run by Matt of Matt’s Big Breakfast, yet another high-end coffee roaster and bar along the lines of Press or Cartel. It’s been long enough since I went to Giant that I can’t tell you what variety of beans I tried, but I sampled their espresso and their pour-over and would recommend both if you’re serious about coffee.

Shifting gears to books, the last book I read, Ian Stewart’s In Pursuit of the Unknown: 17 Equations That Changed the World, was a dud. I enjoy math/science books, even if they get a little technical, but Stewart’s book made the mistake of trying to cover more ground in a short pop-science book than the subject matter permitted. He’d present an equation, give very little about its origins or derivations, and then throw it out there and jump right into applications and subsequent developments. The writing was dry and there was none of the narrative structure you’d get from a longer exposition on the development of one specific formula or equation or proof.

Before that, I read another of Richard Stark’s Parker novels, Plunder Squad, sent to me by the folks at the University of Chicago Press. (It’s just $4 on the Kindle.) That’s the fourth Parker novel I’ve read now, and there’s definitely a sameness to them – Parker gets involved in a heist, something goes wrong, and there’s a good amount of violence and amoral behavior involved in extricating himself – but Stark’s writing is so sharp and his definition of the Parker character so precise that the familiarity doesn’t bore or bother me. It’s odd to compare Stark’s hard-boiled crime writing to P.G. Wodehouse’s upper-class comedies of manners, but they share that attribute – they could almost recycle plots without losing readers, because of the quality of their prose and the way they crafted and developed characters. Als

Next up for books: I’m almost through D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers and also have Dan Koeppel’s Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World in my suitcase.

More Phoenix/Valley eats.

I’m glad to report I’ve found another solid non-chain option out in the west Valley, moderately convenient to Glendale and not far off the route to Goodyear – Ground Control, a coffee roaster that has a strong menu of salads and sandwiches, located on the border of Avondale and Goodyear. I’ve only visited once so far, but the chipotle turkey sandwich, with freshly sliced roasted turkey, havarti, tomatoes, and a thin spread of chipotle mayo, came on an incredible rosemary flatbread along with a side salad for just under $10. The flatbread meant that most of what I got was filling, not bread, and when the filling is good (as mine was) this is a favorable ratio. Ground Control also offers cheese boards and gelato made in-house, if you’re not racing off to a game as I was.

Back in Phoenix, after years of hearing recommendations from locals (including some of you), I finally made it to Beckett’s Table, which is next door to the strip mall that houses crudo. Beckett’s Table’s general vibe is upscale comfort food, with a menu full of hearty dishes that often center on a rich ingredient (short ribs, dumplings, pork shanks), never deviate too far from the spirit of the dish, but use top-quality ingredients to elevate it. I had that pork shank, called a “pork osso buco confit,” and couldn’t get over how rich and yet clean-tasting it was, not heavy or fatty like I feared it might be if it wasn’t cooked long or slowly enough. I was there with my daughter, whose mac and cheese was actually made fresh (not from a box), after which she ate a sizable chunk of Joe Posnanski’s chocolate cheesecake. (I knew once he offered to share, he was in trouble.) I was impressed by the real food on the kids’ menu; it’s not smaller portions of adult entrees, but at least it’s food cooked to order that treats kids like actual people, not like pets. We started with a cheese board while we waited for Joe, which came with three small slices of a 60-day aged goat cheese, grilled pieces of sliced sourdough from a local baker, house-made cranberry chutney, and spiced nuts, all outstanding but not a great value at $15. Those of you who follow me on Twitter saw the chocolate-covered bacon s’mores, but I have to tell you it looked better than it tasted; the best part was actually the homemade marshmallows. Everything was good, but I’d order differently on my next visit.

Tuesday night, I was solo for dinner and tried Franco’s Italian Caffe on Scottsdale Road, which has found a devoted following after just a few months, partly because Franco had previously run restaurants here before moving to New York while his daughter was in school there. Franco himself is Italian-born, but the menu is more Italian by way of New York City, with fare that is heavier than the bright, clean flavors of true Italian food. The pasta erbe aromatiche, apparently a signature dish (according to my server, who was very friendly but butchered every Italian word he said), comprises strozzapretti in a sauce of prosciutto cotto fresh herbs, and white wine reduced and then finished with a thick coating of cream. My pasta was slightly overcooked, not Olive Garden level but still further than I would call “al dente,” and the sauce, while full of the flavors of the herbs and pleasantly salty, was just way too heavy. The burrata starter special was also quite ordinary, with the cheese lacking salt and the prosciutto crudo not enough to make up for it. This is good Italian-American food, but based on one dinner at each place, I think Davanti Enoteca just up the road is a better option. EDIT: Davanti closed in May of 2013.

For more eats around here, sorted by stadium, check out my Arizona spring training dining guide.

Phoenix-area eats, March 2013 update.

I hope by now you’ve seen my spring training dining guide for this year, but of course, this is a month when I try a lot of new places because I’m out of the house for games. Here are a few places I haven’t reviewed on the blog previously, and I’ve updated the guide where appropriate.

I’ve been to Davanti Enoteca in Scottsdale twice now, once for lunch and once for dinner, with the latter the far more memorable experience. The restaurant’s publicist had urged me to try their linguine con riccio di mare e granchio, pasta with sea urchin and crab. (Riccio di mare literally means “hedgehog of the sea.”) The sea urchin, which sushi fans among you know as uni, is in the sauce, an umami-filled buttery coating that’s just barely enough for the pasta and small pieces of delicate crab meat, a phenomenal and, for me, entirely new dish that was only marred by a few bits of crab shell. Davanti is the only place in Arizona that I’ve found that serves white anchovies, known as boquerones in Spanish; here they’re served as fillets, lightly marinated and presented with pecorino sardo, marinated olives, and a small salad of arugula and celery. The bruschetta varies daily; on Saturday it was goat cheese, arugula, small crispy bits of prosciutto, and a light balsamic glaze, nicely balanced with the creaminess of the cheese and peppery arugula balancing the salty-sweet prosciutto. I’d skip the honeycomb focaccia, which the server recommended highly – it’s flat, Ligurian-style, almost cracker-like, with a soft cow’s-milk cheese inside, but overall I found it pretty bland. Dessert was also disappointing – they were out of my first choice, the mille foglie (misspelled as “millie foglie” on the menu, which sounds like a supporting character in a Nero Wolfe novel), and my second, the peanut butter mousse, had a great texture but no flavor. For lunch, they offer a small selection of fresh sandwiches, including an authentic porchetta, served with rapini, aged provolone, and hot peppers (a lot of them), for a very reasonable $9. EDIT: Davanti closed in May of 2013.

On Friday night, I tried Federal Pizza in CenPho – that’s what the cool kids call central Phoenix, apparently, although to me that’s just “downtown” – with Nick Piecoro and a colleague of his at the Republic. After a 90-minute wait for a table, the pizza had to meet a pretty high standard to satisfy me, but it did, better than ‘Pomo in Scottsdale and on par with Cibo, which surprised me given how strong both of those pizzerias are. Federal’s crust is soft and spongy, thin but not Neapolitan-thin where the center often can’t support the toppings, but also not as strong and cracker-like as Bianco’s is. The two pizzas we ordered arrived with plenty of char on the exterior but not underneath, which is good. I went with the Brussels sprout pizza, with manchego, large bits of bacon, and a hint of lemon; Nick ordered the meatball pizza, with house-pulled mozzarella, tomato sauce, and basil. Both were excellent, although I preferred the Brussels sprout pizza for its novelty and for the great combination of the roasted sprouts, which have a little sweetness when they’re caramelized, with the saltiness of the bacon (a great friend to basically all things green) and the Manchego and the acid from the lemon. Nick’s friend, Amy, ordered the roasted vegetable board, which was both very fresh and very generous, with more cauliflower, roasted to a nice shade of brown on the cut sides, than I could ever eat at one sitting.

I never wrote up crudo, although it’s on the dining guide and I’ve recommended it to many of you individually. Crudo’s menu has four major sections: four or five crudo (raw) seafood dishes that give the restaurant its name, four plates built around fresh mozzarella, four pasta/risotto options, and four grilled proteins, as well as a few sides. Nearly everything my daughter and I ate here was outstanding; she loved the fresh mozzarella with bacon relish, I couldn’t get over the quality of the albacore (with apple, truffles, and black garlic) in the crudo preparation, and we both adored the crispy pig ears appetizer and the squash dumplings with pork ragout (this was in November when that was seasonal). They also feature desserts by the great Tracy Dempsey, and, again sticking with the fall theme, we had an apple tart with crème fraîche that was superb, especially the crust which was firm when you cut the tart but shattered in your mouth so all of that imprisoned butter could burst forth as you bit into the apple. If I were trying to impress a woman on a date, this is where I’d take her.

Further out here in the east valley boonies, I tried the new Whiskey Rose Saloon BBQ location in south Chandler, which they promise will be the first outpost of many … although I doubt it, as the food was pretty mediocre across the board. They are smoking the meats, but there was very little smoke flavor anywhere to be found, and what we got – I went with Phoenix New Times/Chow Bella food critic Laura Hahnefeld and her husband, Jay – was not very hot when it reached the table. About the best I can say for the food is that nothing was overcooked to the point of dryness, but none of it had much taste, and the amount of fat left on the brisket was kind of shocking. The conversation clearly outpaced the food here. By the way, Laura also has the skinny on the awful makeover of Distrito in Scottsdale’s Saguaro hotel.

I’ve also been remiss in failing to mention Queen Creek’s San Tan Flats, which is more of an experience than a restaurant, offering basic grilled fare like burgers, steaks, and chicken breasts with Jack Daniels sauce, but in an outdoor venue with fire pits (bring your own marshmallows … no, really, we do) and live country music. Located on Hunt Highway just east of the end of Ellsworth Road, San Tan Flats gets pretty jammed on the weekends but it’s very kid-friendly and the food is adequate for an evening of hanging out with friends, with the three of us eating there for under $40 unless there’s alcohol involved.

Phoenix eats, fall 2012.

Today’s installment of the offseason buyer’s guides, covering the catching market, is the end of the series. I’ll do award posts starting on Monday with Rookies of the Year.

Barrio Queen, in Old Town Scottsdale, is a spinoff of Phoenix’s Barrio Cafe, sharing some menu items but focusing more on street tacos, roughly four-inch tortillas generously filled with about 20 different options diners can choose from a sushi-style paper menu that covers beef, chicken, pork, seafood, and vegetarian fillings, all ranging from $2.50 to $5 or so. The restaurant’s signature cochinita pibil (slow-roasted pork shoulder) appears in taco form, as do carnitas, grilled flank steak, mushrooms and huitlacoche (corn fungus), and smoked salmon. The carnitas taco was the best of the four I tried, with the meat shredded and slightly crispy on the edges, although the smoked salmon with roasted cactus paddle (nopal) was a close second. The mixed grilled peppers taco blew my mouth off, although that doesn’t make it a bad thing. We also tried the chili verde fries, which are just what they sound like, with pork and cheese, a little too over the top for me although the chili verde itself was delicious. The food itself destroys any other tacos I’ve had in the Valley save downtown’s Gallo Blanco, and the prices are comparable to and even below some well-reviewed places like the overrated La Condesa.

Distrito, in the Saguaro hotel just up Drinkwater from Scottsdale Stadium (where the Giants train), also goes for a Mexican street food vibe, but the dishes are more complex and upscale, with price points to match. The mahi-mahi tacos ($14) come three to an order, with large pieces of fried fish on top of chipotle remoulade and a red cabbage slaw on top. Their cochinita pibil ($12) comes already sliced, which is a little odd, but the meat was tender and was served with a slow-cooked pineapple achiote sauce that was actually even better the next day. Their huarache de hongos ($10) flatbread includes mixed wild mushrooms as well as huitlacoche and a topping of melted mild white cheeses. The guacamole ($10) with cotija cheese was silently spicy but also had some of the creamiest avocadoes I have ever tried, giving them a faintly sweet taste as well. We tried one of the vegetable sides, the esquites ($6), sweet corn served off the cob, tossed with lime and queso fresco, served on a bed of chiptole aioli (probably the same that’s under the mahi mahi), a fork-friendly equivalent to the charred corn with cotija and paprika dish that’s become very trendy across the U.S. over the last few years. The one dish that fell a little short for me was the queso fundido ($12), duck barbacoa with roasted chilies served under a sheet of melted cheeses; the flavor of the duck itself completely disappeared under the cumin, red peppers, and poblanos.

While I’m still covering Scottsdale, I’ll throw in yet another endorsement of Baratin Cafe, which might be the single best value in the Valley because you’re getting very high-end ingredients and preparations for roughly $10 per salad or sandwich. The catch is that the menu changes daily and it is small – one salad, one sandwich, one “potted” (forcemeat or pate) or pickled dish, a snack, a starter, a vegetarian plate, and a dessert. I’ve been four times, always showing up with no idea what would be on the menu, ordered the sandwich each time, and have been thrilled with everything, even the day the sandwich was vegetarian and built around eggplant, probably my least favorite vegetable (technically a berry) of all. Baratin piggybacks on the purchasing power and prowess of FnB, which is just around the corner on Craftsman, but you can get in and out of Baratin at about half the cost of its more sophisticated sibling. If you’re staying in Old Town and are an open-minded eater, this is the one place I’d encourage you to hit above all others.

Moving over to Phoenix, Chris Bianco’s newest place, bearing the Google-unfriendly moniker Italian Restaurant, opened earlier this year in the Town and Country shopping center just off route 51 between Highland and Camelback. The focus here is on house-made fresh pastas produced from Arizona-grown wheat and served with simple, mostly traditional sauces that rely on fresh ingredients, with the menu changing frequently to reflect seasonal items. We started with the farinata, a traditional Italian crepe made from chickpea flour and cooked in a very hot cast-iron skillet until crispy. Italian Restaurant’s version includes red onions, black olives, and sage leaves, balancing the sweetness and tang of the onions with the brininess of the olives and the earthiness of the chickpea flour and sage, bringing a very satisfying crunch from the high heat to which it’s exposed during cooking. (You can try this very similar recipe if you want to make it at home as I’ve done.)

For the entree, I went with the papardelle bolognese, which is among my favorite sauces but one I rarely eat because it’s so often done poorly – overcooked, made with too much cream, made only with beef, made with cheap tomatoes, whatever. Bianco’s place does it right, starting with giant sheets of pasta closer in dimensions to lasagna, cooked just barely to al dente, served with a vibrant red sauce without the heaviness of most bolognese attempts (including a few of my own at home). My parents were visiting that week, and my mother chose the cavatelli with Schreiner’s sausage, roasted cauliflower, and spring onions; the sausage and pasta combination was a perfect marriage, with the al dente cavatelli bringing a bready texture to the meat, although the cauliflower was overrun by other flavors in the dish. Portions are generous but not unfinishable and prices are reasonable for the quality you’re getting, with each pasta dish running $15.

I also tried Chris Bianco’s legendary sandwich shop, Pane Bianco, and was a little disappointed, at least compared to the high expectations I’d gotten from friends who’ve tried it. The bread was what let me down, which is shocking since Bianco is known for his pizza doughs and uses a similar formula for the focaccia at Pane Bianco. Mine was dry and lacked the soft sponginess of good focaccia, so while it absorbed some of the olive oil from the mayo-less tuna salad, it was too chewy and made the whole sandwich feel heavy. All five of these places appeared in Phoenix magazine’s list of the 20-odd best new restaurants of 2012.

To the east valley … if you’re going to a Cubs or Mesa Solar Sox day game, my new recommendation for a pregame meal is Urban Picnic on Main Street, less than ten minutes’ drive from the ballpark, offering a modest menu of hot (pressed, but not smashed) and cold sandwiches, made on these amazing baguettes, soft on the inside with a crust that shatters upon impact. I’ve tried two sandwiches, the mozzarella caprese and the roast beef with horseradish, both of which are outstanding, although I wish the mozzarella was fresher – it’s not quite the hard moisture-reduced stuff you get at your generic megamart, but it’s not as soft as even a good-quality cow’s-milk mozzarella is. The fruit cup you can get on the side is tiny but the fruit within has always been sweet and was obviously cut that morning. The only item I didn’t like was the fresh lavender lemonade, which was like sucking on a flower.

Pitta Souvli, located at Germann and Alma School just south of the 202’s Santan portion in Chandler, wins the prize for best Greek/Mediterranean place we’ve found so far, with everything solid but the small plates really shining. Their baba ghanoush is a powerful mixture of smoky, tart, and garlicky flavors that will have you radiating allyl methyl sulfide from your pores for days. The avgolemono – a soup made from chicken stock, lemon juice, rice, and eggs that are beaten into the hot stock to make a thick, cloudy end product – has bright lemon flavors and the thick, slightly uneven texture that the soup should have if the rice is fully cooked and the eggs are added slowly enough. Their souvlaki is a slightly mixed bag, with the meats a little overcooked for my tastes, more of a problem with the chicken (white meat, so it dries out) than with the pork. They also get points for using thick, better-quality pitas that can stand up to heat and to thick dips like the baba ghanoush and the hummus, which is topped with a bright peppery olive oil.

And finally, to Surprise, where there’s finally a good, fairly quick, non-chain option near the ballpark: Saigon Kitchen, the best Vietnamese restaurant I’ve found out here and another restaurant in Phoenix magazine’s list. I’m a little boring when it comes to Vietnamese food because I nearly always order the bun, steamed vermicelli topped with some sort of grilled, highly marinated meat, served with a sweet/savory sauce based on nam pla (a salty Asian fish sauce that’s very high in umami) along with bean sprouts, shredded vegetables, mint leaves, and sometimes peanuts. What Saigon Kitchen does differently from most places is create blocks of a highly spiced (but not spicy) pork meatloaf, as opposed to fatty slices of pork, baking the meat at a low temperature before finishing it on the flat-top to give it some color. It’s tricky to eat with chopsticks because the blocks are so large, but the added flavor and improved texture make it completely worth it. It’s busy at lunch but I haven’t seen it packed, probably because of all the competition from crappy chains next door to it on Bell Road, and the food comes pretty quickly.