By Alison Bailin Batz | February 8, 2021
Growing up in Chicago, Christopher Nicosia’s Italian family were foodies before the term existed.
“We traveled extensively, and I had the good fortune to taste food from around the globe from a very young age,” Nicosia says.
In addition to this, during summer breaks in high school, he also worked at a family friend’s restaurant in Cape Cod, putting on clambakes and food-focused beach parties. That led to spending his college years catering on the side.
Still, the lauded Scottsdale chef and Arizona Culinary Hall of Fame inductee didn’t become a chef straight out of school.
“After college I took a sales job — and hated it,” Nicosia says. “A year into it, when my dad could see cooking was my passion, he asked me where in the world I wanted to seek my culinary education and told me to book a plane ticket the next day.”
Nicosia chose the Scottsdale Culinary Institute in 1996. During the next several years, Nicosia honed his craft at Lon’s at the Hermosa Inn and Desert Mountain before joining long-time North Valley icon Sassi as executive chef in 2010. For eight years, Nicosia slowly and flavorfully built Sassi’s reputation into one of the most authentic Italian restaurants in the Southwest.
“We went so far as to fly in olive oil direct from Italy and a specialty mozzarella that comes from the actual water buffalo of the Mediterranean, the only breed of its kind in Italy,” Nicosia says.
When not manning the kitchen at Sassi, Nicosia spent what little downtime he had becoming an avid hunter and fisherman. He’s been known to cook up Guiney fowl in the middle of a field in South Africa, and to prepare fish freshly caught while still on the boat in the middle of the ocean.
“I also, of course, started my beloved family,” Nicosia says.
Unfortunately, in 2018, Sassi served its last meal. For a spell, many in the community worried they might never indulge in Nicosia’s delicacies again. That is, until word started spreading about The Craftsman Cocktails + Kitchen last year, and Nicosia potentially being part of the new restaurant concept. Thankfully the rumors were true, and when the restaurant opened in the fall of 2020, Nicosia made his return to the Scottsdale culinary community with the new venue.
“The word ‘craft’ is used a lot these days. There is craft beer, craft cocktails, craft food and the list goes on,” Nicosia says.
“The word is derived from craeft in Old English and essentially means strength and skilling in planning, making and executing something.”
At his new venue, according to Nicosia, they use it to describe their approach to food and drink, but also added the word in homage to the Old English usage and to honor one man. The man’s name is Victor Ebel. The hardworking and skilled farmer and woodworker loved his family, the land and working skillfully with his hands. He also happens to be the grandfather of one of Nicosia’s business partners in the venture. When Ebel died, the family even put “craftsman” on his headstone.
“His memory inspires everything we do at The Craftsman, from our ‘come as you are’ attitude to our use of farm fresh ingredients and even our design, which — of course — has thoughtful touches of wood throughout,” Nicosia says.
Every menu item, from starters to entrees, is prepared from scratch daily using locally sourced ingredients from local vendors. Nicosia’s approach is to pair quality with creativity and features items such as housemade lamb belly sausage flatbread, beet caprese salad with farro and wood oven-roasted desert branzino. Select entrees and desserts will be infused with in-house distilled spirits and craft beers as well.
“We also feature our own line of distilled spirits, including vodka, gin, rum, barrel-aged amaro, bourbon and coffee liqueur,” Nicosia says.
Bottles of The Craftsman Distillers spirits will be available for sampling at the 6,357-square-foot venue, as well as to purchase and take home.
In addition to spirit sampling, the small-batch liquors and liqueurs are used as the base ingredients in most of The Craftsman’s signature cocktails. Among the standouts are Dry Heat using Craftsman vodka, passion fruit puree, house jalapeno simple syrup, cilantro and lime; Blood Choco Negroni, made with Craftsman gin, Cacao Campari, Cocchi Vermouth Di Torino and blood orange; and Gingerly with Craftsman rum, Pajarote ginger, candied ginger, lime juice and house simple syrup.
The Craftsman Cocktails + Kitchen
Hayden Peak Crossing
20469 N. Hayden Road, Scottsdale