Just over two decades ago in 1994, Nation’s Restaurant News informed its readers about a “new darling of the breadbasket, the pizza oven and the sandwich board” known as focaccia. In actuality, the leavened flat bread has ancient roots, but it took until the ‘90s for it to become mainstream in the United States. A year later in 1995, Focaccia Fiorentina opened in Downtown Phoenix. Just as focaccia the bread has become widely popular in the United States, Focaccia Fiorentina has endured as a reliable, casual place catering to the weekday lunch crowd.
Focaccia Fiorentina occupies a cavernous space with high ceilings in the historic Heard Building. The location along Central Avenue is equidistant from the Van Buren light rail stations and the pair of stations a little to the south near CityScape. Bike racks are located around the corner on both Adams and Monroe streets. A small patio sees some use during mild weather, but most customers are found inside, either waiting in line to order at the counter or seated at the various tables and counters throughout the interior. A few sofas offer a lounge-style alternative.
Customers who order focaccia sandwiches, calzones, or pizzas receive a numbered placard to ensure the food is delivered to the right table. Salads and pastas, on the other hand, are served right at the counter in a cafeteria-style arrangement. For those who mix and match in order to take advantage of various menu specials such as a half pizza and a small salad or a half sandwich and a small serving of pasta, part of the order may be ready right away while the other item is cooked to order and brought to the table a few minutes later.
The restaurant’s namesake bread is used on almost all sandwiches. The sole exception is a meatball sandwich made with a baguette, a more appropriate shape to hold two meaty spheres. Focaccia can have a lot of variations in terms of various herbs, shapes, and textures. The version served here is a solid, standard interpretation of a classic. It’s about an inch thick with plenty of air pockets to prevent it from becoming excessively filling. The texture is crisp enough to provide structure for the sandwiches but not so much as to be brittle.
Among the sandwiches on the menu, some are clearly all-American in their filings despite the Italian bread. The Americano combines turkey and ham with cheese, mayonnaise, bacon, onion, and lettuce. The Bolgheri is a simple but effective turkey sandwich with plenty of mayo; however, the Rimpolla adds a slightly more Mediterranean note to quintessentially American poultry with the addition of sun-dried tomato. The Classico and the Fattoria used Italian cured meats — prosciutto and salami, respectively — while the Gardiniere and the Caprese are vegetarian.
The sandwiches are quite large in their standard dimensions and fine for most appetites when ordered half size with a side salad, either garden or Caesar, or a small serving of pasta. The pasta dishes also come in both regular and oversized bowls with a small piece of bread. Everyday noodle dishes include rigatoni with a hearty Bolognese ragu of ground meat, tomato, and bell peppers. Penne alla vodka and Rigatoni alla Fiorentina are two creamy staples, and the Fresca di Campagna is lighter touch with fresh tomatoes and balsamic vinegar providing an acidic flavor.
Each day of the week sees a pasta alongside the perennials. Monday, the special is fusilli, often served in a creamy, indulgent pesto. Thursday is usually chicken parmigiana. Pizzas come in variety of standard versions such as a Greek Isles pie with feta and red peppers, but there’s also a daily pizza special. The typical pie at Focaccia Fiorentina is a 10” personal pizza, but the pizza of the day is available in a half-size special with a salad added. The pizzas have a serviceable crust but tend to go a little heavy on the cheese to the point that some of the toppings are muted.
Although Focaccia Fiorentina markets itself as Italian food made accessible for quick American-style lunches, the restaurant offers a completely different menu (and ethnicity) in the morning. The restaurant’s breakfast menu is heavily influenced by Mexican and border cuisines. The staff wrap up burritos with eggs, potatoes, chorizo, cheese, and green chile beef as fillings. Those same items can be ordered in a larger bowl. There are also about a dozen omelets with both Southwestern and Mediterranean ingredients folded into the eggs.
Because Focaccia Fiorentina closes by mid-afternoon and currently offers no weekend hours, there’s no liquor license. What the restaurant does offer in abundance is iced tea — not just sweetened and unsweetened, but all sorts of black, green, white, and herbal varieties that change frequently. Of course there are sodas, including not only fountain standards but also canned Italian fruit drinks and bottled sparkling water. Desserts include individually wrapped cookies and brownies, but the house-made cheesecake and tiramisu are better options in indulging.
Focaccia Fiorentina’s limited hours are a potential source of frustration, but the restaurant has extended its reach via catering, a second location at Sky Harbor Airport, and Saturday morning appearances at the Downtown Phoenix Public Market. Focaccia is no longer exotic, but its mass adoption has allowed it to become the basis of any number of sandwiches for Downtown office workers on the run. Having served those workers for nearly two decades, Focaccia Fiorentina can safely be said to be part of the mainstream in Downtown Phoenix.
112 N. Central Ave., Phoenix AZ 85004