By Jeff Kronenfeld, October 2020 Issue.
If you’re seeking a slice of pizza that can transport you to the sun-soaked hills of southern Italy, look no further than Pizzería Virtù. It’s the latest venture of Chef Gio Osso, who also owns Virtu Honest Craft, a local gem since 2013. As he has there, Osso succeeds in infusing every bite with the passion and palette honed by his annual visits to Italy as a kid.
Osso is actually a native of New Jersey, though he calls it Italy’s far-left coast. As the son of Italian immigrants who spent his summers in the old country, you can understand why. Though now he credits those summer trips to the peninsula for his love for cooking, at the time he often just missed his friends back in the States. Osso laughs about that now, but when he talks about wanting to make pizzas like he ate back then, you can tell it’s no joke.
This isn’t the only nostalgic reason Osso decided to get in the pie game while already managing a busy restaurant. When he first moved to the Valley in 2002, he visited Grazie Restaurant and Wine Bar, which happened to have just opened and be near where he was staying. Osso visited the Old Town Scottsdale restaurant and befriended the Italian owner, Maurizio Cristiani, who offered him a job. Osso took him up a few weeks later and moved to the Valley. He worked there for a year and a half before branching out, but he stayed in touch with his old boss.
In November of 2019, a friend told Osso that Cristiani was getting ready to hang up his flower-coated apron for good. Wouldn’t it be perfect, the friend suggested, if Osso took over the space where his journey in the Valley food scene began? Osso thought that wasn’t a bad idea and reached out to Cristiani to set up a meeting. It didn’t take much more than an hour for them to strike a deal.
In January, Osso and his business partner got the keys and got to work on the remodel. Other than the décor, the biggest change was retooling from producing thinner, Roman-style pizzas to the more substantial Neapolitan variety. Osso was able to take advantage of the space’s woodfire oven, but to produce the most authentic pies he had to get certified by the True Neapolitan Pizza Association, more commonly referred to by its Italian acronym AVPN.
Founded in 1984 and headquartered in Naples, the organization ensures pizzerias selling Neapolitan pizza conform to stringent standards. These include restrictions on what kind of ingredients can be used and how they can be prepared. For example, the dough can only be made from flour, yeast, salt and water. This simple set of ingredients must be mixed by hand or with a specialized low-speed mixer. Osso traveled to the AVPN Americas headquarter in Los Angeles and got certified as a Neapolitan pizzaiolo.
“I decided I really want to make pizza in that style because that’s just what I grew up on,” Osso said. “I just remember the taste, texture and airiness of the dough, and so I really wanted to keep that tradition going.”
Pizzeria Virtu is old school about ordering, too. There’s no app or online form, and they’ve even dispensed with a strict menu for the time being. Instead, you call up and chat about what’s cooking that day. Osso may be strict about authenticity, but he still loves to improvise with whatever is in season, so the pizzeria always offers up fresh takes, as well as time-tested classics. I actually preferred this to electronic ordering, especially since the staff are more than happy to answer questions, make suggestions, or just chat.
While the pizzeria is currently open for dine-in, we opted to take our three pies, cocktails and a salad to go. It’s a shame, too, because the place has the most romantic ambiance. Hopefully, we’ll be back in-person in not too long. Still, when I arrived early in the evening, I found plenty of parking, which would certainly have not been the case in this Old Town location pre-pandemic. After the amateur move of forgetting my mask, I called in and a server very kindly brought out my order, even huffing it across the street for me. The hardest part was not sneaking a bite on the drive home despite the hearty scent of charred wheat and tomatoes filling my vehicle.
I popped the pies in the oven to reheat after a quick photoshoot, and in the meantime, we got to work on the kale salad. The base of dark greens was topped with chickpeas, roasted cherry tomatoes, and freshly shredded cheese. The flavor of the lightly astringent kale played well with the nuttiness of the beans, pungent cheese and creamy dressing. However, the real stars were the tomatoes, which exploded with sweet and savory warmth.
The first pizza we tried was the Reggio, but the Spilinga might be more apt. Both are the names of communities in Calabria, the toe box of Italy’s boot. The former is a city, and the latter a nearby village famous for ‘Nduja, a spicy-sweet variety of cured pork. Osso worried Spilinga might tongue-tie non-Italians, and so he named it after the nearby — and more pronounceable — city of Reggio. Whatever it’s called, the combination of tart pork and smokey tomato sauce yields a pie whose simple appearance belies its complex and well-balanced flavor. Hints of spice add to the cloying savory base.
The Affumicata was our next pie up. Literally meaning smoked, its name refers to Scamorza Affumicata, a cheese which is a little like a drier, more pungent mozzarella. This is combined with cherry tomatoes, basil, roasted garlic and some parmesan, making it a little like a smoked Margarita pizza. The light, almost airy cheese really did add something special. The little tomatoes burst with flavor like ripe berries. The wheat crunch of the crust rounded it out.
Our third pizza was called the Diamante, and it just slightly edged out the Affumicata as my favorite. It’s essentially a white pie with mozzarella, fennel sausage, garlic, a big pile of finely sliced prosciutto, a little bit of Calabrian chili and two types of peppers. This one is named after a little town just north of Osso’s family home which hosts a huge pepper festival every year. The well-diced blend of Fresno and Bell peppers adds a little sweet heat. The sprinkling of sausage contributes its own bite, which is evened out by the cheese and prosciutto.
Last but not least was our cocktail, the Sophia, a sweet pink drink with a punch. The to-go cocktails come with four servings sealed in a mason jar, meaning very little risk of spilling. It was a saccharine kiss with more than a little bite. I really enjoyed this and if you want to get silly, ordering one of these per person is a very tasty way to get the job done.
Sofia means wisdom in Greek, which was just one of the cultures to have left its stamp on the Mediterranean melting pot that is southern Italy. Chef Osso reaches back into this ancient past to craft pizzas which can make you feel like you are basking in the Calabrian sun even if you’re really just roasting in an oppressive Arizona summer day.