Posted: 02/03/2014 12:06 pm EST Updated: 02/03/2014 12:59 pm EST
John Mariani - Food and travel columnist, Esquire My favorite time to go to Arizona is not in mid-summer when it's 110 degrees outside. "But it's dry heat!" the locals scream. So is a pizza oven's. So the only thing to do, as I did when there last summer, was to stay inside until time for lunch and dinner, when I could venture out, crank up the AC in the car and rush into a nice, cool restaurant. But as the snow shows no let-up in much of the U.S., a trip to Arizona seems dreamy indeed.
The place where I spent much time inside was the Bespoke Inn, which is a good deal more than a bed-and-breakfast and well shy of a formal hotel. Its luxury is evident in the attention to personalized detail owners Kate and Rob put into every inch, from the comforters to the soaps, from the books and toys on the shelves to the polished nickel fixtures. There is an infinity edge lap pool and you may ride on the British Pashley bicycles free of charge (even if it's 110 degrees outside).
Downstairs are three bedrooms and upstairs the Signature Flat, where I was so happy to stay, furnished with high ceilings and reclaimed wood floors, with a fabulous kitchen with a marble island and handmade walnut farm table. Daily brunch at Virtù downstairs is part of the room rate.
Kate and Rob -- you'll be immediately on a first name basis -- are eager to tend to your wishes, and you'd have to think long and hard to come up with a request they will not grant. When a taxi did not arrive on time to take me to the airport, Kate just shrugged and said, "Hop in the car. I'll run you over." More generous, more congenial, more amiable innkeepers cannot be.
As for the Virtù Honest Craft restaurant, I've long admired the inventive Southwestern cooking of Chef Gio Osso, and now, with just 25 seats and bar, he's proven himself one of America's finest interpreters of Mediterranean food, albeit with Arizona swagger, evident in a starter like his beautiful fried squash blossoms plumped up with pecan goat's cheese, local lemon-scented honey and chopped chives. The food looks like fine dining is supposed to look, but the laid-back vibe of the place puts out all notions of pretentiousness.
It's always evident when a chef cooks what he himself loves to eat, leading to dishes like Osso's grilled orata coated with lemon-oregano crumbs and sided with a Calabrese peperonata with a scorpion's bite. He makes his own cream-centered burrata and chile butter, whips fat-mottled mortadella salame into a puree to be spread on smoky country bread, and reduces cherries, hazelnuts and chocolate to make a sour-sweet gianduja sauce to lavish on his smoked duck with toasted cumin and cashew tabbouleh of bulghur wheat.
Virtù has a lot of buzz among local chefs who sit at the bar, order a Virtù Starter Kit cocktail of Cocchi vermouth, Plymouth gin, grapefruit bitters and bitter lemon soda, and nod to each other as they eat Osso's food, looking for ideas. Open for brunch and dinner daily; Appetizers $7-$15, main courses $18-$29.