By Laura Stoddard
Chef Scott Conant is something of a nomad.
With restaurants from Las Vegas to New York, constant public appearances and a steadily expanding brand to cultivate, the Chopped judge just wanted a place to call home. He found comfort in the Valley.
“I’ve spent some time in Scottsdale over the years, and I moved to Scottsdale a little over a year ago,” Conant says. “I spend a lot of time on planes nowadays, but I liked the idea of having businesses in the Phoenix market.”
Those businesses include Mora Italian, a modern Osteria, which he describes as having exceptional and innovative cuisine in hip-but-sophisticated surroundings.
“We just want people to come in and have fun and be casual,” Conant says. “You could drink or you could eat, or you could just nibble on some things; but basically, it’s a place where you feel comfortable, and a place you can go to a couple times a week. It’s also great for special occasions, so it’s not limited to anything. It could be exactly what you need it to be for yourself.”
During a recent meal there, we couldn’t have been more pleased. From the ambiance to the knowledgeable waitstaff to the delectable meal, it was exactly, as Conant said, what we needed.
For our meal at Mora, we settled onto the comfy, tufted bench, which runs the length of the north wall, beneath images and advertisements hastening back to the Golden Age of Hollywood. Mora’s menu boasts a wealth of tapas-style appetizers, but we opted to start with tomato bruschetta ($10), thick slices of warm, soft bread topped with tomatoes, ricotta and basil.
Choosing entrées was time consuming, because, not surprisingly, all the dishes on the menu looked inventive and delicious. We settled on the Ricotta and Mascarpone Gnudi ($25), decadent, gnocchi-like dumplings filled with cheese, accompanied by tender, perfectly cooked pieces of lobster, guanciale ragu, and delicate shards of bacon, all atop a creamy sauce that was rich and flavorful without being too heavy.
We also ordered the roasted line-caught halibut ($36), a substantial piece of fish with a beautiful, golden crust on the outside, and a moist and flaky interior. Accompanied by sunchoke puree, olive gremolata, trumpet mushrooms and herbs, every bite offered layers of dynamic flavor.
Open since February, the 5,800-square-foot Mora is separated into different areas, yet still cohesive. There’s the comfortable, trendy patio, with roll-up doors and access to the indoor/outdoor bar. The more casual, TV-laden bar is stocked with local and noteworthy beers, fine wines and craft cocktails. The contemporary, somewhat industrial main dining room has a playful décor, long velvet curtains, and touches of natural stone and brick. The vibrantly red-hued open kitchen allows guests to see the culinary magic.
Conant says he was drawn to the Phoenix area by friends and business partners, but its food movement as well.
“I like to be part of that,” he says. When I moved into the (Phoenix) market, they approached me at Chopped and asked me if they should have more chefs from Phoenix, and I said, 100 percent absolutely. So now they’re getting a lot of chefs on the show from this market, which has been really beneficial.”
He also hastens to add he’s a lot nicer than they make him out to be on the show. “I think it’s the editing,” he says with a laugh.
Cooking was not Conant’s first choice as a career. It was plumbing. Food, however, was part of his childhood, and it was intriguing to him. In fact, he began cooking classes when he was 11.
“I went to a vocational school for high school and I couldn’t get into the plumbing program, so I chose culinary arts as a second choice,” Conant says.
“Fortunately, it worked out. I figured I’d try the cooking thing until the plumbing program opened.”
By the time Conant could enroll, he was already hooked on the excitement and possibilities the culinary field offered. He was ready to shift his focus from pipes to pizza.
Conant says that he’s been blessed in his career, but one wonders if he is expecting to open other eateries.
“I’m kicking some ideas around,” he says. “I hope so.”
Mora Italian, 5651 N. Seventh Street, Phoenix, 602.795.9943, moraitalian.com.
For additional restaurants in the Valley, visit our restaurants page.