Summer In Scottsdale And The Livin’ Is Line-Free
To the ordinary outsider, a trip to Scottsdale, Arizona, for the 4th of July, may seem a bit crazy, what with the average temperature hovering above 100 degrees for the month of July. However, throw into the mix the fact that hotel prices drop anywhere from 50% to 80% off their peak season rates (from the very high-end resorts down to basic chain hotels), restaurants otherwise normally difficult at best to get into are home to empty dining rooms, and the reality that the dry desert air doesn’t really feel that bad (at least to this New York City dweller who suffers through perspiration-inducing walks from the subway to the office for the entire summer season), and you begin to realize Scottsdale is a smart, attractive and a not-very-scary destination for travel during the summer.
I was here last summer around the same time (you can watch my Travel Guide to Scottsdale Video here), so I was both prepared for the massive amount of really well prepared food I was about to ingest, but also as is usual, unprepared for how good it was going to be.
I was also very aware of where I wanted to stay, and why. Which is why, after a short 35-minute drive from the airport, we found ourselves sipping hibiscus-infused ice water and taking in the panoramic views of the greater Phoenix valley from the lobby of the Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale at Troon North while our luggage was being loaded onto a stretch golf cart (yes, those apparently do exist).
Set on 40 acres of preserved desert landscape at the foothills of Pinnacle Peak and a world away from the urban sprawl of Phoenix, the Four Seasons Scottsdale features 210 Southwestern-inspired rooms, most of which are located within adobe casitas that dot the hotel property. From the room balconies, you can watch as the towering boulders of the nearby peak come alive and glow as the sun fades away towards sunset, or admire the Sonoran cactuses that are scattered around the small buildings and which crawl up the mountain landscape.
Not content with lounging around the pool and being handed hourly refreshments ranging from mint lemonade to ice pops, we decided to head to the kitchen and experience the Chef for a Day exclusive experience with executive chef Meliton “Mel” Mecinas.
Self-taught and proud of it, Chef Mecinas worked his way up the kitchen ladder, starting from his father’s family restaurant to the kitchen of Chef Joachim Splichal at the celebrated Los Angeles restaurant Patina. Today you will find him joking around with his admiring staff — a rare site to see in a kitchen, at least from my memories of working as a waiter at Olive Garden when I was 23 — and tweaking his menu daily to serve the many needs of the hotel, most notably experienced at Talavera, his Southwestern take on the traditional steakhouse. (I pushed him to find out which celebrities have eaten there. Paul McCartney and Tiger Woods came up as two recent diners.)
After we were suited up with official chef garb, given a behind-the-scenes tour of the kitchens and food pantries (don’t laugh, I actually really enjoyed this part of the tour and even asked to see the second walk-in freezer despite the protestations of the others on the tour), and walked through the process of prepping for the evening’s meals, we cleaned up back at the room and returned later that evening for a special six-course meal prepared by the chef himself that was served al fresco at the restaurant’s expansive patio flanked by the location’s signature fire pit.
The meal included a refreshing Ahi Tuna Tartare, a succulent Lobster and Corn Bisque, and a Diver Scallops entree topped with squash blossom, pickled carrots, fava beans and a sunchoke purée. There were also numerous mushrooms included in our many dishes, allegedly the same mushrooms sliced and prepared by us hours earlier, but I suspect our mushrooms were relegated to the next day’s poolside stroganoff and Southwestern 1/2 pounders.
The following night, we hopped in the car and headed south into the heart of Scottsdale, Old Town, the small yet surprisingly bustling town square with an Old West feel where the city was founded in 1880 by Winfield Scott (who purchased 640 acres for roughly the cost it would take today to buy a double latte).
We began with a wine tasting at the Lawrence Dunham Wine Gallery, a showcase store for the unique vineyard founded by Mr. Dunham himself in the Arizona wine country located in the Chiricahua Mountains in Southeastern Arizona near the Mexican border.
Over the course of a half-hour, we were treated to a sampling of some of Lawrence’s favorite varietals, including the 2011 Signature Petite Sirah, the vineyard’s signature wine aged in new American oak barrels for 28 months, which produced a full-bodied wine with smoky, spice and dark fruit flavors.
We also had the 2012 Syrah, the vineyard’s first 100% estate-grown and produced Syrah, which is aged in one-year-old American oak barrels for 30 months, producing a full-bodied wine with flavors of dark berries, leather and a hint of mocha.
Several tastings later, I had my credit card out and was the proud new owner of three bottles of Lawrence Dunham premium wines, two separate occurrences I strongly suspect were very connected and calculated to take place in that particular order.
With a stomach full of wine and the sun having given way to a crisp summer evening — my favorite time of day in the desert — we made our way to the heart of downtown to one of the city’s hottest dining destinations, The Mission Scottsdale Arizona.
During high season, this trendy locale is usually packed with out-of-towners waiting upwards of two hours for a table during dinner, but this being July and all, when we arrived, we were quickly escorted to a prime table in the restaurant’s dark, loungey interior that resembled a cross between a metropolitan speakeasy bar and the dining room of a South American hacienda, if that particular hacienda was located in say, Tribeca.
The man in charge of food here, Chef Matt Carter, took his French training and created a menu with a Latin focus, including dishes such as a Chilean Salmon with citrus-cured salmon, guajillo tomato jam, crispy padron peppers, huitlacoche and sweet corn puree, and a Chorizo Porchetta with housemade chorizo, rosemary, cotija, white bean puree and sweet garlic crema. For dessert we splurged on the mini-churros with a chocolate milk side, perfect for dipping and washing down the savory dinner.
The next morning we awoke long before the sun was up, met an unusually peppy van driver at our hotel and made our way north about 45 minutes to an empty field where a dozen or so hot air balloons were being prepped by Hot Air Expeditions for flight. The family-owned operation is one of the state’s longest running hot air balloon companies, and it has an impeccable record for safety (as evidenced by our first flight being cancelled the morning before due to a freak thunderstorm resembling something from a scene from Twister).
After a pre-flight safety lecture while the balloons were being inflated by flamethrowers the size of a small car, the eight of us climbed into the basket and took off into the desert air. Reaching a height of 3,000 feet, I was amazed by how I wasn’t affected by my fear of heights (a phobia I link to a healthy fear of dying — similar to my fear of snakes, spiders and the music of Abba).
Needless to say, the dry desert air is optimal for long-distance viewing, and as we reached peak altitude, the entire Greater Phoenix Metropolitan Area came into full view, and a quiet serenity came over the entire basket, with the silence being broken only by the occasional whooosh of the flame-thrower and the beep of a camera.
After about 45 minutes of floating noiselessly in the sky, we began out descent down toward the scraggy ground, where we were met by our driver, who by this time, had set up breakfast for us upon arrival. I can’t think of a better way to finish up a flight than with a breakfast of Quiche, fruit and most importantly, flutes of mimosas — a tradition apparently dating back to the origins of hot air ballooning in France (obviously).
Of course, if the sun starts to get a little too intense for your tastes, it’s always good to escape for the afternoon into a highly air-conditioned complex — the Musical Instrument Museum being a good example one such place. Opened in 2010, the museum is the largest of its kind in the world, and is home to over 6,000 instruments from 200 countries and territories around the world.
Categorized by region and country, the museum’s exhaustive collection could easily take up to a full day to see. Given the constraints we had by an evening concert by Wilco that night, we got to somewhere around Côte d’Ivoire and Benin before we ran out of time. However, we agreed the museum was beyond our expectations, and surely a must-return attraction next time we were in town (my goal is to get to Tonga and Papau New Guinea next time).
The 4th of July turned out to be one of the more festive times of the year at our next hotel, The Fairmont Scottsdale Princess. Located on 65 acres in the heart of the Sonoran Desert, this luxury hotel is one of the premier spots to rest your head in the area. We were lucky enough to be staying at the Fairmont Gold, a dedicated property adjacent to the main hotel, complete with its own personalized check-in, apportioned lounge (with complimentary brunch in the morning and snacks throughout the day) and luxury suites.
We were also fortunate to have a panoramic view of the 18-hole TPC Scottsdale, home to the Waste Management Phoenix Open, the PGA’s most widely attended tournament where 500,000 people somehow manage to attend throughout the day’s events.
The hotel is home to four top-ranked restaurants, a world-class spa called the Well & Being Spa, and enough golf carts to shuttle you around the grounds without you having to break a sweat (well, almost) getting from one end to the other.
Our afternoon was spent at the spa where we were treated to the Hacienda Retreat, a 90-minute treatment that begin with a yellow corn and lime body polish exfoliation, a hydrating mask of shea butter scented with lime zest, spearmint and lemon and a 30-minute massage with the spa’s signature Mojito body butter. This was followed up by a dip in the spa’s waterfall pool and then a long afternoon resting at the spa’s exclusive rooftop pool with panoramic views of the property (and on our particular visit, a Tim Tebow frolicking in the pool with a group of friends).
Dinner that night was at La Hacienda, one of Phoenix’s top-rated Mexican restaurants/tequila bar. We treated ourselves to a flavorful guacamole, a shrimp and halibut ceviche appetizer, and the Camarones Divorciados for dinner complemented with rajas con crema, salsa chipotle, salsa poblano and pico de gallo.
This being 4th of July and all, the hotel was packed with a large local contingent there for the festivities, which included a vintage air show, skydivers, a live music show and of course a fireworks demonstration in classic holiday fashion. The view of the show couldn’t have been better from our balcony.
In the spirit of ingesting as many high-quality foodstuffs into our body that week, our first stop the next day was the Queen Creek Olive Mill. Located about a 30-minute drive from Scottsdale, the 100-acre farm is Arizona’s only working olive farm and mill and is home to roughly 7,000 trees and 16 different varieties. It is also the premier supplier of virgin and extra virgin olive oil to the city’s top restaurants.
We were lucky enough to have our own olive oil testing, which included samples of their most popular Extra Virgin Olive Oil, the Roasted Garlic Olive Oil, the Meyer Lemon Olive Oil and my favorite, the Peach Balsamic Glaze, a concoction that I could literally envision being added to anything I place in my mouth to ingest.
This was followed by a tour of the mill’s presses and a crash course in the mechanics of olive oil production, and a lunch that included one of the region’s most famous sandwiches, the Kalamata, which includes Pork Shop Kalamata salami, Genoa salami, capicola, herb roasted tomatoes, provolone, red onion and Herb Crema served on a ciabatti with, you guessed it, a healthy serving of olive oil.
The shop is also a popular destination for foodies looking to stock up on their kitchen’s olive oil supply. They also have a burgeoning olive oil-based home and body category, as well as balsamic vinegars and cook books.
I’ve got to admit, I’ve kind of got a thing for this whole Mid-Century aesthetic that has been spreading outwardly from the hip Palm Spring hotels that have been rocking this look (both in original and retro form) since, well, the Mid-Century, and there’s no better place to experience this aesthetic than Scottsdale’s The Saguaro. The Saguaro (which, not surprisingly, also has an outpost in Palm Springs), is located centrally in Old Town and the Arts district, and was created out of the shell of an old standard two-level motel roadside motel.
The property is decked out in vibrant reds and yellows, wood and leather accents, and exudes a hip vibe that made my 35-year-old self question whether I was cool enough to stay here. Best of all, The Saguaro is located just steps away from Old Town and its many restaurants and bars, the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMoCA) and even the Old Town Farmers Market, which means you never have an excuse to go sober, hungry or uncultured while staying there.
Through the lobby and down a short staircase is Distrito, Iron Chef Winner José Garces’ contemporary interpretation of the street food served in Mexico City’s Distrito Federal. They also have a variety of over 100 tequilas on hand for their exotic cocktail list.
Speaking of food, we decided to finish up the trip on a culinary high note (why stop now?), and we headed to dinner at Marcellino Ristorante. Run by the chef/husband and wife team of Chef Marcellino and Sima Verzino, this upscale Italian restaurant serves some of the best Italian food in Phoenix — if not this side of the Mississippi River.
Coming from New York (and having grown up with homemade Italian food my entire life), it’s hard for me to be impressed with Italian food, but the second we started tasting the fine creations of Chef Verzino, we knew we were going to be in for a treat. With a master’s touch in the kitchen and a cultural knowledge rooted in Chef Verzino’s childhood years where he was raised on his family’s farm in the Campania region of Italy, you can tell the chef has practically been preparing food since he was a child (his official start date is said to be age 12).
The restaurant itself is sleek, dimly lit and decorated in warm hues, and wouldn’t be out of place on the street level of a Manhattan skyscraper (a city where Chef Verzino once worked). The bar is both romantic and inviting, and to its left is a wine tasting room perfect for large groups. Just outside is a small patio area where you can eat al fresco under the stars. And more likely than not, you will encounter Chef Verzino personally preparing the dishes in the open kitchen or wandering from table to table, shaking hands with the many regulars and striking up conversations with old and new friends alike.
We had the good fortune of sitting down with the chef and his wife, Sima, and enjoying dinner with them as they regaled us with their stories of growing up, running an award-winning restaurant in Scottsdale and the fine art of truly being passionate about your work, a pursuit the couple vigorously defends.
Our appetizer included Scallops al Pesto, which was a flavorful scallop sautéed in white wine and served on a bed of pesto sauce with a basil leaf protruding from the top, and the Carpaccio di Tonno, a thinly sliced piece of raw Ahi tuna on a bed of arugula and finished with a lemon mint dressing.
We followed this with a sampling of pasta (all hand-made of course), including the Paccatelli al Ragu di Salsiccia, a short and flat-shaped pasta served with a filling ragu of tomato, sausage and fresh herbs, and Tortelloni, hand-filled with a puree of filet mignon and sauteed vegetables and covered in tomatoes sauce.
Chef Verzino places a particular focus on serving fresh food based upon market availability, and for our final course, we were treated to a filet of deep-sea halibut sautéed with extra virgin olive oil, scallions (picked form his own garden) and cherry tomatoes served on a bed of mashed potatoes.
Without a doubt, we finished our dining experience in Scottsdale with one of our favorite meals, and the chance that we would return for dinner (or lunch) next time we were there, whether it be high or low season, are a given.
Completely stuffed and fully relaxed from a week of good food, drinks, hospitality and excursions, we took a long nighttime stroll along the Arizona Canal (featuring the unmistakable Soleri Bridge, a pedestrian bridge designed by Paolo Soleri). The crisp desert air gave way to a sky full of bright stars, and we took our time walking back to the car, knowing all too well this was our last ride before having to head back home.
Eat and Drink
Matt Stabile is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Expeditioner. The Expeditioner began in 2008 and is headquartered in New York City. You can read his writings, watch his travel videos or contact him at any time at TheExpeditioner.com.