As new construction blossoms in Downtown Phoenix after years of delays, one of the details debated about various projects is the role of ground floor retail. Having shops or restaurants located below residences promotes a variety of uses in the pursuit of urban vitality. At the same time, adding more space than the market can bear can lead to the blight of empty storefronts. As recently as a decade ago, however, Phoenix wasn’t having this discussion because there was so little new construction that old houses were often the only space available for new businesses.
Cibo, a pizzeria that recently celebrated its tenth anniversary, is one of the pioneers. It’s among a handful of restaurants in historic homes that came before the current wave of development arrived. The site is a bungalow constructed in 1913 at Fifth Avenue and Fillmore. At the time, the neighborhood was among Phoenix’s original streetcar suburbs. Now, it’s part of the northwestern quadrant of Downtown. South of Fillmore, it’s all vacant lots, many of which are slated for redevelopment. On the north side, however, Cibo stands preserved along with its neighbors.
Cibo is at the upper limit of walking distance from light rail. It’s half a mile from both the Van Buren stations and the Roosevelt / Central station, but the route from Roosevelt offers a far more pleasant walk through intact historic neighborhoods rather than the vacant lots along the path from Van Buren. For customers who arrive via bicycle, Cibo’s bike rack is hidden in a courtyard between its patio dining area and a valet parking lot accessible from Fillmore.
The entrance and host station face Fifth Avenue and lie just beyond a patio that is cooled by misters and shaded by mature trees. The interior is, as one would expect in an adapted vintage bungalow, divided into several small dining rooms. A central room features a small bar and serves as the restaurant’s crossroads. Three other dining rooms are found surrounding it with varying degrees of intimacy and natural light in each. The decor and ambience provide a suitable environment for a date or business lunch, but it’s not uncommon to see families with children.
Cibo has separate menus for lunch and dinner with different emphases but some overlap. The dinner menu focuses most heavily on pizza, 12-inch pies in over 20 varieties. At lunch, just four of the most popular selections are offered in a nine-inch size more suitable for one person. Conversely, the midday menu has a strong orientation toward saltimbocca, sandwiches made from freshly baked bread that are similar to panini but without grill marks from a press. A few of those sandwiches make their way onto the evening menu. Pasta dishes are served only at night.
Unlike some nearby pizzerias, Cibo is not certified by Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana (AVPN), the agency that strictly regulates Neapolitan pizza. The restaurant’s core product, however, can hold its own against almost any AVPN pies around town. The crust is light, thinnest at the center, and just slightly charred. The toppings are, for the most part, traditional. Red pizzas begin with basics such as the margherita and then become more interesting with La Noce, in which the usual tomato sauce and mozzarella base is topped with ricotta, arugula, and walnuts.
There is also an entire column of white pizzas, which forego tomato sauce in favor of ingredient combinations such as sausage and potato or mushrooms and prosciutto. Finally, there’s the option to add a-la-carte toppings such as roasted red peppers or anchovies. Many of these same ingredients reappear in different combinations in the saltimbocca sandwiches, which are divided into hot and cold sections. Although the word “saltimbocca” can mean veal or chicken cutlets in addition to griddle bread, Cibo’s sandwich offerings include fillings such as tuna, salmon, and grilled vegetables.
To start a meal or to supplement pizzas, Cibo’s salad and antipasto offerings also generally follow Italian traditions with occasional flourishes from other cuisines and cultures. The pesto salad tops organic mixed greens with tomatoes, pine nuts, roasted potatoes, and shaved parmesan cheese. The Mele is a light meal in itself with its mesclun lettuces covered with slices of grilled chicken and apple, along with bleu cheese and walnuts. Arancini are fried rice balls with a center of mozzarella, and the popette appetizer is three hearty meatballs with sauce and sliced bread.
Cibo’s usual pasta offerings are limited to a pair of regular entrees, a simple, creamy linguine cacio e pepe and a chunky pappardelle bolognese. A special pasta dish such as rigatoni with lemon usually makes a midweek appearance Wednesday and Thursday. There is one more component of the Cibo menu that should not be overlooked. The dessert section is composed almost entirely of crepes. Nutella with banana or strawberries is among the simpler choices. A more elaborate selection is the Fresca crepe with French vanilla ice cream and assorted fruit.
The small bar at the center of Cibo focuses primarily on wine. As expected, there are numerous Italian bottles, but there’s also room for Arizona wines such as Pillsbury’s Wild Child. A small selection of bottled beer focuses on regional craft brews, along with Italian standby Peroni. In the years to come, the vacant land across Fillmore is likely to be developed, and some of the new buildings will have ground floor retail. While waiting for those spaces to be filled with tenants, Cibo offers a welcome reminder of the role renovated houses have played in Downtown dining.
603 N. 5th Ave., Phoenix AZ 85003
Roosevelt / Central Station