In the Alpine village of Carrù in the Piedmont region of Italy stands the “Monumento al Bue Grasso” (monument to a fat ox). Depicting two fat oxen under yoke, the monument celebrates the beast of burden so important to the region. December’s ‘Fiera del Bue Grasso’ (festival of the fat ox) brings together tens of thousands of visitors who come to gaze at the oxen and eat copious amounts of deliciously warming tripe soup and boiled beef, washed down with a milled wine. Farmers from throughout the region truck their oxen into town to show them off and vie for the chance to win the honored title of the “fattest ox.” Onlookers gather well before dawn to admire these enormous Piedmontese cattle.
During our December, 2020 visit to the Phoenix area, we decided to celebrate another December holiday at a restaurant named for the Bue Grasso. Indeed, Scottsdale’s Fat Ox is inspired by the rich culinary history of the Festival of the Fat Ox in Carrù. An image of a fat ox precedes the restaurant’s name by the entrance to the spectacular edifice. On Christmas night, the lavish dining room with its contemporary glass and wood appointments was dimly lit and evoked a sense of intimacy despite the personal space proximity of its seating. Because The Dude, our debonair dachshund, was celebrating Christmas with us, we dined on the patio where portable heaters kept us comfortable.
More than at any Italian restaurant in which we’ve dined, Fat Ox validates my friend David P. Wagner’s contention that “there’s truly no such thing as Italian food.” David, the author of the magnificent Rick Montoya Italian mysteries, spent nine years in Italy, and quickly realized that the food on the boot was not the same as the food he grew up eating in his Italian-American neighborhood. As David’s novels point out, what Italians consider “Italian food” varies from region to region even to this day. Remember, until 1861 what we now know as “Italy” was actually comprised of individual city-states with their own languages, traditions and foods. Each of the country’s twenty diverse and unique regions remains fiercely protective as to the authenticity and recipes for its cuisines. The foods of Sicily, for example, differs greatly from the foods of Tuscany which vary significantly from the foods of Calabria.
Fat Ox’s website boasts of “crafting modern riffs on regional Italian classics.” Despite being named for a cherished symbol of Italy’s Piedmont region, the dishes on the menu aren’t tied to that region or to any one particular region, maybe not even entirely to the country of Italy. The common elements of every dish seem to be a whimsical spirit of eclectic modernity that reinterprets classic Italian flavors, in some cases blowing away our conception of what a dish should be. More than at any Italian restaurant we’ve ever visited, the flavors and ingredients challenged my powers of discernment and fooled my taste buds. More than at any Italian restaurant, we found ourselves asking our delightful server, the aptly named Holly, to confirm what we were tasting. “Do I taste soy sauce and teriyaki in this dish?” “Is there five spice powder in this dish?” Holly’s encyclopedic knowledge and willingness to share it was a surprising element of a delightful evening.
Italian chef Gino D’Acampo contends the reason Italian food is so tasty is because “there are less ingredients than in any other cuisine” and that “Italian food is extremely simple.” Fat Ox’s website confirms that “most dishes only have between four or eight ingredients…what makes Italian food taste so great.” Perhaps what Fat Ox’s celebrated chef and restaurant impresario Matt Carter has done is uncovered preternaturally unique ingredient combinations that tease, tantalize and…confuse taste buds. Perhaps simplicity is in the eye of the beholder…or practitioner. Fat Ox’s website also boasts of “Chef Matt Carter’s modern take on Italian cuisine–where simplicity is the key factor.”
Then again, Chef Carter “cooked at Scottsdale’s La Chaumiere, where he was immediately smitten with the artistry, demands and disciplines of French gastronomy. His experience there inspired a move to France where he refined his skills at various restaurants and gained exposure to the world’s finest cuisine.” That may explain why we just couldn’t discern either simplicity or ingredient paucity in the delightful dishes we enjoyed so much. Maybe instead of attempting to determine the formulaic composition of our dinner, I should have focused more on reveling in the dishes and in the enchanting company with whom I was sharing a tremendous meal.
Holidays are meant to be spent with those you love and what better way to celebrate than around a table filled with delicious food? On the evening of Christmas, Fat Ox offered a four-course chef’s choice menu with multiple options per course. We made our reservation a week in advance, booking one of the two remaining spots. At a balmy 64-degrees when we arrived at 7:30PM, it didn’t exactly feel like a New Mexico Christmas, much less a white one.
As we perused the menu, Holly brought us two slices of the house bread with a pat of Calabrian butter. The bread’s golden sheen seemed to indicate it was brushed with olive oil or perhaps butter. Texturally, the bread was somewhat reminiscent of foccacia in its density though it was definitely not foccacia. Holly explained that the Calabrian butter was infused with spices from Italy’s Calabria region. We didn’t discern the presence of Calabrian peppers which are fairly mild in terms of heat, but impart a flavorful burst to whatever they are added.
My first course was burrata Di Stefano from the Di Stefano family who introduced burrata to America, not by exporting it to the fruited plain, but by immigrating to the United States and opening a cheese factory in Los Angeles in 1996. At the time, burrata wasn’t widely known outside of the Puglia region–not even in Italy. It took a while–and one especially influential chef named Nancy Silverton–before burrata caught on. Today burrata is one of the most popular and trendy of all Italian cheeses. Burrata is an unnaturally soft and moist fresh Italian cheese made from cream and mozzarella. Translated to “buttered,” it bears a strong resemblance to mozzarella, but is much softer and when penetrated by a knife or fork, has an interior that spills out, revealing unctuous, stringy curd and fresh cream.
It stands to reason that the progenitor of burrata would create the very best. Indeed, Di Stefano burrata is everything we love about burrata. It’s creamy, milky, soft and absolutely delicious. Fat Ox serves it on a salad of sorts along with red Brussels, orange agrodolce, delicate squash and pistachio. This magnificent melange of flavors and textures didn’t need a dressing to tie everything together. The ingredients themselves did that. This was a magnificent way to start a memorable Christmas meal.
My Kim’s starter was prosciutto Di San Daniele, “created by the expert hands of master prosciutto makers whose age-old knowledge and strict rules transform meat and salt into a masterpiece of flavor and delicacy.” While prosciutto is the Italian word for “ham,” to call it mere ham is to greatly diminish one of the world’s most delicate and delicious cuts of pork. Sliced so thin you can almost see through it, prosciutto has a sweet meaty flavor with a discernible tinge of saltiness, and a melt-in-your-mouth buttery texture.
Fat Ox serves a generous amount of prosciutto drizzled with fermented garlic honey, plating it with Ox bread topped with Bellwether ricotta and pepita crumble. It would be far too simple to top the Ox bread with prosciutto, in effect making a sandwich, but that would diminish the experience. No, you’ll want to enjoy the prosciutto on its own. Enjoy the bread, ricotta and pepita crumble in between swoon-worthy bites of the prosciutto. You’ll relish the contrast offered by the fermented garlic honey.
If you read no further than the name of my second course, you’d probably be thinking of a very rich, very special dish made from a cylindrical pasta stuffed with cheeses and (or) meats. It’s a very rare cannelloni which offers any surprises. Fat Ox’s version does. It’s cannelloni unlike any we’ve ever had. Reading the litany of ingredients–honey-brined ham hock, buttermilk biscuit crumble, saba, pickled shallot–under the item did little to help me understand just how this cannelloni was constructed, especially the complexity of the sauce. Holly confirmed the presence of soy sauce and teriyaki as well as other ingredients my taste buds didn’t pick up. We did pick up on the saba, an Italian syrup made from cooking down grape. While the cannelloni itself was superb, it was the complexity and depth of flavors in the saba-infused sauce that really blew me away.
Even more astounding to me was my Kim’s second course choice: lorrighittas with confit octopus. She’s usually nonplussed about any type of squid or octopus, so I suspect what sold her on this dish was the presence of bone marrow butter. She loves bone marrow, the more unctuous the better. This was her first experience with lorrighittas, a handmade braided Sardinian pasta which paired so well with tender ringlets of confit octopus. Duck cracklings gave the dish a remarkable textural contrast. The bone marrow butter my Kim had been craving was actually cooked down with a beet jus that provided a light saucing effect. It wasn’t lost within the dish, but didn’t have as prominent a role as she would have liked. Still, she may forever have changed her mind about octopus.
As if it wasn’t challenging enough to decide which main course to order, the Christmas menu also offered a supplemental (for a price) Wagyu New York strip. Tempting as Wagyu may be, Holly confided her favorite dish was the Alaskan halibut served with fois gras ravioli, red currants, golden chanterelle mushrooms and a rich parsnip velouté sauce. Never mind the Italian-American feast of seven fishes. When you’ve got a fish as fresh and flavorful as Alaskan halibut, who needs anything else. With a mild flavor calling to mind the sweet taste of crab, halibut is one of the least “fishy” of all fish dishes. It absorbs sauces and seasoning exceptionally well, too. The parsnip velouté sauce was superb, a worthy sauce for a fabulous fish.
My Kim’s main course was a six-ounce Linz prime filet covered in a Barolo demi and served with smoked confit potato sprinkled with a shallot-thyme crumble. Because we’ve had Linz meats in several Chicago chophouses, this was a no-brainer. Linz heritage Angus beef is outstanding! Especially the boneless prime filet. While we normally eschew steak sauce of any kind, the barolo demi was rich, full-bodied and absolutely delicious. That’s no surprise considering Barolo, a premium red wine from Italy’s Piedmont region is the best among Italian red wines. The smoked confit-potatoes deserve a shout-out, too. We could have eaten a sackful.
Five desserts graced the menu. Although Holly explained the dessert course is “chef’s choice,” both my Kim and I got exactly the dessert we would have ordered. For me, that was the banana tiramisu. I had suspected a banana liqueur had been used to impart the fresh and prominent banana notes, but Holly explained that actual bananas are flash frozen then crumbled and layered among the ladyfingers, espresso and mascarpone. This is a dessert for people (like me) who don’t like anything too sweet. There is a tremendous depth of flavor and complexity to banana tiramisu, a melding of ingredients that go together so well.
The dessert destined for my Kim was the red velvet mascarpone cake. This was wholly unlike any red velvet cake either of us had ever had. The real difference-maker is the mascarpone, the velvety, luscious and creamy (especially creamy) cheese that’s not overly sweet. This rich, indulgent cake is drizzled with thick red buttercream frosting and fresh blackberries that provide a slightly tart contrast to dark chocolate stripes.
Scottsdale’s Fat Ox restaurant is itself a “Monumento al Bue Grasso,” paying loving tribute to the Piedmont region which celebrates a rather corpulent cow. Fat Ox may not subscribe to any Italian food template of our acquaint, but its unique interpretations of Italian food sure made it a memorable Christmas for us.
6316 North Scottsdale
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LATEST VISIT: 25 December 2020
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Burrata Di Stefano, Prosciutto san Daniele, Lorrighittas with Confit Octopus, Cannelloni, Alaskan Halibut, Linz Prime Filet, Red Velvet Mascarpone Cake, Banana Tiramisu