The Arizona Republic

Defender of tradition, chef Scorzo earns his due

- Dominic Armato

The day starts with cappuccino, naturally.

Giovanni Scorzo, chef and proprietor of Andreoli Italian Grocer in Scottsdale, stands at the hissing espresso machine, foaming a metal pitcher of milk before carefully tapping it against the counter. He spoons the milk into a waiting cup of espresso and hands the concoction to one of his line cooks, already hard at work, who lovingly cradles it like a baby bird in his upturned palm.

A well-caffeinate­d staff is an efficient staff, but Scorzo’s team isn’t fueled by 2-quart jugs of airy, Starbucks-style cappuccino. This is the cappuccino you find on every street corner in Italy — a diminutive cup filled with a brew that’s wet, luscious and thick.

“When you make a cappuccino, the foam has to be shiny, see?” Scorzo says, presenting a spoonful that more closely resembles whipped cream than foam. “No bubbles. If you see bubbles, then it’s no good.”

For more than three decades, Scorzo has built a reputation as the Valley’s resident hardliner for traditiona­l Italian cuisine. Only recently, however, has he achieved a level of popularity long enjoyed by his contempora­ries. One might assume it’s a classic story — a lifetime chasing a level of mastery that could finally stand out from the crowd. But the truth, in this case, is the other way around.

Scorzo has always been this good. He just had to stay true to himself long enough for Phoenix to catch up.

An underrated, old-school chef

It isn’t as though Scorzo is invisible.

“I grew up with a lot of characters from the old country,” says Chris Bianco, the Arizona pizza icon who worked for Scorzo when he was getting his start. “He was definitely right out of Central Casting.”

Larger than life, hard-nosed and sometimes cantankero­us, Scorzo sports a personalit­y as direct as his food. But while the outspoken ideologue has ruffled more than his share of feathers, it’s nearly impossible to find anyone who will question his chops.

Born in Calabria, raised in Liguria and trained in fine restaurant­s all over Italy, Scorzo ran multiple acclaimed restaurant­s before Andreoli. In 1989, then Arizona Republic dining critic Elin Jeffords gave his first Scottsdale restaurant, La Bruschetta, a nearly perfect score, calling it “one of the finest restaurant­s in town.” The paper subsequent­ly named his second effort, Leccabaffi, the best Italian restaurant in the city in 2000.

“I think Gianni is one of the most underrated chefs anywhere, in this country or in any country,” Bianco says. “He’s an old-school unicorn. You name it, he can do it.”

He’s old-school, sure, but more than that, Scorzo is defiantly so. The wall next to his butcher’s block looks less like a meat shop and more like a medieval armory. When he dismantles primal cuts of beef for Bistecca alla Fiorentina, Scorzo uses a long blade to slice the meat before breaking out an antique cleaver (his "axe," he calls it) to hack through the bone.

“When you use an electric saw, the fiber of the meat, it’s no good,” Scorzo says. “The taste changes.”

This maniacal focus on the correct way to prepare Italian cuisine is part of the formula that brought him recognitio­n. But his uncompromi­sing nature has at times made it difficult for him to connect with a dining public he initially struggled to understand.

How love led him to America

In 1985, Linda Rupp, an ASU student and self-described “meat and potatoes kind of gal” from Missouri, was just four days into a semester in Italy when she received her first marriage proposal — five minutes after meeting Scorzo.

“I thought he was crazy,” Linda recalls. “Now I know he is.”

Scorzo followed Linda back to Arizona. The couple eventually married, and while Scorzo was enchanted by his new bride, he was considerab­ly less so by the horrors he discovered in Italian restaurant­s around the Valley. He says he recalls watching cooks prepare a week’s supply of marinara — standing on ladders, dumping industrial-sized cans of tomato concentrat­e and garlic powder into a stainless steel vat with a spigot at the bottom.

Scorzo was aghast. But he didn’t blame the Americans.

“It’s the Italian people’s fault,” Scorzo says. "The idea to put meatballs on top of the pasta, who made it? Americans? No. The Italians. They created this mess.”

In 1998, Giovanni and Linda Scorzo made a bid to take Italian cuisine back from the “food terrorists” — his oft-repeated term for those who would bastardize Italian cuisine. The couple launched La Bruschetta, a white tablecloth Italian ristorante named for a dish that few Americans had heard of and even fewer could pronounce.

“I remember waiting for a risotto, cooked to order. It took 25 minutes,” Bianco says. “He was uncompromi­sing. I will not do it before it’s ready and before it’s the way I want and the way it should be done. And you either appreciate that and think that’s awesome, or not.”

'Why don’t they understand?'

Many diners raised on oregano-laced marinara, limp pasta and “continenta­l” Italian didn’t.

“I had a lot of nice customers, but some people, they don’t want to see the real thing,” Scorzo says. “(Linda) helped me a lot. I felt like I was going nuts. I said, why don’t they understand what I’m trying to do?”

Linda urged him to make some concession­s, but Scorzo refused to compromise. Even some fans took issue.

When Jeffords returned a year after her glowing review, one of Jeffords’ dining companions ordered his steak medium well. Scorzo refused to his face, insisting it would ruin the meat. He served it medium rare.

Jeffords penned a piece about the dinner headlined “Chef forgets customer is always right,” concluding that “no matter what the chef ’s personal feelings, people plunking down their cash for a meal have a right to have it exactly the way they want.”

Frustrated by this and similar incidents, Scorzo invited Bianco out to Santa Fe to open a second restaurant, Babbo Ganzo. But trying to run two restaurant­s in two cities while starting a family proved too much. Scorzo sold La Bruschetta, eventually leaving Babbo

Ganzo and moving his fledgling family to California.

"In San Francisco, my friend called me. 'Hey, you’re in a movie with your wife!'" Scorzo recalls.

That movie was "Big Night," the iconic food film depicting two Calabrian brothers — stubborn traditiona­list Primo and savvy, willing to compromise Secondo — whose New Jersey restaurant slowly dies as their elegant, traditiona­l Italian cuisine fails to connect with their spaghetti and meatballs clientele.

“We went to see it,” Scorzo says. “For people, it was funny. For me, it was sad.”

Fortunatel­y, there would be happier times ahead.

Take a seat at The King Table

Lunchtime at Andreoli takes on a celebrator­y air. Anybody who isn't wearing a smile on the way in the door usually finds one before long.

The line snakes from the door across the room, past antique wooden cabinets stocked with imported Italian foodstuffs, in front of the pastry and deli cases, all the way to where Scorzo holds court.

In front of the register, at the crossroads of Andreoli stands “The King Table,” surrounded by worn armchairs, sporting a custom top that bears its name and a small sign that reads “RESERVED.” Here, Scorzo sits, sipping espresso while bantering in Italian with friends. Judging by the endless procession of handshakes, backslaps and kisses on the cheek, he has a lot of them.

Scorzo nibbles on mortadella and a chunk of crusty bread baked before dawn by Angelino, his youngest son, while watching a soccer game with Gian Paul, Angelino’s older brother. Francesca, the eldest of the Scorzo siblings and a fixture behind Andreoli's counter since day one, swoops in between appointmen­ts and pauses to join the gathering.

The conversati­on turns to food and Scorzo jumps, rememberin­g a pristine shipment of seafood that just arrived.

“I’m going to make a nice dish of sushi, my style,” he exclaims.

Scorzo grabs a California halibut and cuts away irregular, palm-sized slices, tossing them casually on a platter and quickly basting them with a pureed blend of olives, capers, oil and lemon. The presentati­on isn’t about appearance­s. It’s about simple flavors and the textural pleasure of biting into those thick, oddly shaped slabs of fresh fish.

“If I want to see art, I go to an art gallery,” Scorzo says.

He unwraps a hefty chunk of tuna — deep ruby red, the size of a basketball — raising it to his nose and pausing to inhale deeply. Good cooks taste. Great cooks smell. Scorzo is like a bloodhound, constantly sniffing everything he prepares.

“I can still smell the restaurant where my mother used to cook. You know, the smells, they bring you back 50 years in one second,” he says, snapping his fingers.

A childhood in the kitchen

Scorzo walks into the dining room, offering slices of the finished pesce crudo to his guests. This is part of the routine, a little taste and a little education — especially if the table has kids.

"I like to be involved with kids," Scorzo says. "Because if they are taught from the beginning, it's very difficult to go back to bad food."

Reclaiming his seat at The King Table, he reminisces about his childhood.

In Cetraro, a modest coastal town in Calabria, food was everything. For Scorzo, it was more than most. As a small child, perhaps seven or eight years old, Scorzo recalls how he fashioned a quail trap out of willow branches, then plucked and cleaned his first catch.

“I tell my grandmothe­r, can I have a big potato? She goes, what are you up to? I want to do something nice,” Scorzo says.

Hollowing out the potato, he seasoned the quail meat and stuffed it inside with a little oil and sage. Scorzo buried the potato in the cooling ashes of his grandmothe­r’s cooking fire, ran outside to play with friends, and returned a few hours later to enjoy a savory treat.

Scorzo grew up in a family of cooks, both profession­al and amateur. His father, Serafino Scorzo, butchered a pig once a year, utilizing every part to make salumi like prosciutto, ‘nduja and capicola. But his mother, Adele Andreoli — for whom the restaurant is named — was a restaurant cook and Scorzo’s strongest childhood influence.

“When she used to make gnocchi or raviolini, they were so good,” Scorzo recalls. “I used to go under the table, reach up and steal them.”

He softens as he remembers.

“I want to involve everybody,” he says. “Kids, family, like from when I was young.”

How Andreoli became an institutio­n

After a three-year run at Zingari in San Francisco, Scorzo decided California was too expensive and moved the family back to Arizona.

Leccabaffi, his second try in Arizona, was an upscale ristorante in the La Bruschetta mold, complete with critical acclaim, a cultish fan base and the usual bevy of bewildered marinaraph­iles. Leccabaffi lasted four years, overlappin­g with Galileo, an Italian bakery that would pave the way for Andreoli. But balancing early baker’s hours with late restaurant nights proved untenable, and Scorzo found himself exhausted.

“I said to my wife, I don’t want to do a restaurant anymore,” Scorzo says.

Scorzo spent the next two years as a stay-at-home dad, feeding and caring for his trio of kids while hatching a plan to launch a new business — not a traditiona­l restaurant, but a casual market where most of the staff would inhabit the kitchen, where he would cook whatever he pleased and where an entire family could spend the evening.

Thirteen years, two additional dining rooms and multiple television appearance­s later, Andreoli is a Scottsdale institutio­n that has not only connected with the local audience, but a national one.

Linda, a former stockbroke­r who has always managed the restaurant­s’ books, will admit to having harbored reservatio­ns about Scorzo’s hardline stance.

But she’ll also be the first to say that he was right all along.

“I was always thinking from a financial lens, and it was always defiantly, no, no, no, no, no. And he didn’t ever care about the business side of it,” she says. “But he did not bend. And I’m ever so grateful that he didn’t and has passed that on to his kids.”

'I will never change'

Watching Scorzo make a plate of spaghetti pomodoro is maddening. His work is every Italian cooking cliché in the book, but no matter how many times you’ve heard them, the brutal simplicity is still disarming.

A healthy glug of olive oil hits a hot pan, along with a handful of roughly chopped garlic.

“People I know say, Giovanni, you’re stupid. There is this guy who sells oil. It’s cheaper,” Scorzo says. “Sir, is this Chevron or Mobil? You want me to cook with this? I will close the restaurant if I have to cook that way.”

He adds one ladle of crushed, canned San Marzano tomatoes, a small pile of halved grape tomatoes and a single dried chile pepper, torn in half.

“Yeah, I have high food cost. For what? For me?” he asks, rhetorical­ly. “Yes. Because I don’t want to cheat people.”

He drops a box of ultrapremi­um dried spaghetti into a boiling pot of water, occasional­ly ladling a bit of the liquid into the bubbling pan of sauce.

The pasta comes out of the water and cooks with the tomatoes, joined by a bit of fresh basil at the last moment. When the finished spaghetti hits the plate, it isn’t red, but a faint orange-pink, without a drop of extraneous sauce. A final drizzle of olive oil, a light dusting of roughly grated cheese and it’s done.

“I charge $20 for this pasta, they charge 17 with Chinese Parmigiana,” Scorzo says.

He returns to a dining room filled with families, takes a seat and tucks into his dinner. The pasta is glorious. It’s achingly simple, fresh and light, stridently unpretenti­ous — a perfect antidote to the cheap, clumsy versions you'll find almost everywhere else in town.

But the secrets are right there in plain sight.

“I didn’t give up because there was a misunderst­anding between the customer and me,” Scorzo says. “I didn’t try to cheat them. I tried to put the best product in front of everybody to show the reality of good food. And a lot of people, they think I’m an a--hole, but I don’t really care. And I will never change.”

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 ??  ?? Scorzo
 ?? PHOTOS BY TOM TINGLE/THE REPUBLIC ?? Giovanni Scorzo, owner of Andreoli Italian Grocer in Scottsdale, cuts meat at the restaurant on Oct. 16.
PHOTOS BY TOM TINGLE/THE REPUBLIC Giovanni Scorzo, owner of Andreoli Italian Grocer in Scottsdale, cuts meat at the restaurant on Oct. 16.
 ??  ?? Spaghetini con pomodorini and basilico from Andreoli Italian Grocer in Scottsdale.
Spaghetini con pomodorini and basilico from Andreoli Italian Grocer in Scottsdale.
 ?? TOM TINGLE/THE REPUBLIC ?? Giovanni Scorzo, owner of Andreoli Italian Grocer in Scottsdale, poses outside the restaurant with his family on Oct. 16. From left to right: wife Linda, son Gian Paul, daughter Francesca, Giovanni and son Angelino.
TOM TINGLE/THE REPUBLIC Giovanni Scorzo, owner of Andreoli Italian Grocer in Scottsdale, poses outside the restaurant with his family on Oct. 16. From left to right: wife Linda, son Gian Paul, daughter Francesca, Giovanni and son Angelino.

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