The Collier Center might be considered the middle child of big mixed use projects in Downtown Phoenix. It came along just over a decade after the Arizona Center, and about the same length of time before CityScape. As with human middle children, the development is sometimes overlooked and its best attributes hidden. The Collier Center’s prime restaurant space is located off the street on the second floor. If that architectural decision seems a mistake, it’s encouraging the obscure location is now occupied by Mancuso’s, a restaurant with prior experience at another hidden site.
Long ago, the original Mancuso’s was buried in the bowels of the Borgata, the Scottsdale shopping center designed to look like an Italian village. The Borgata is no longer standing, but Mancuso’s has been revived 15 miles away in the heart of Phoenix’s business district near the convention center and major event venues. One of the complaints about the Borgata was that its tenants were invisible from the street, but if Mancuso’s patrons were able to find their way into that complex, perhaps they can find their way upstairs to the restaurant’s new Phoenix location.
That location is across the street from the Washington / Third Street westbound light rail station and a block from its Jefferson / Third Street companion for eastbound trains. The Collier Center’s bike racks are found on the west side of the building and reached via Second Street. From any of those entry points, take the escalator, stairs, or elevator up to the second floor and look for the vibrant blue Mancuso’s sign, along with a new patio that puts some of the Collier Center’s outdoor space to good use.
Mancuso’s has refreshed the restaurant’s interior, which needed some updating after serving as an outpost of the Kincaid’s chain for a decade-and-a-half. Behind the host station, there’s a vintage map of San Gimignano, the medieval Tuscan town after which the restaurant’s original home, the Borgata, was modeled. It’s also a nod to Mancuso’s Italian-influenced cuisine. The dining room has been refurbished with a colorful hexagonal upholstery pattern and globular light fixtures. Off to the side is the “ball room,” a bar and lounge that sees peak traffic at happy hour.
As the name and the map suggest, Mancuso’s food is predominantly Italian, or to be more specific upscale Italian-American with a few French touches, a culinary tradition that previous generations might have called “continental.” There have been some updates to reflect contemporary trends, including the inclusion of a few gluten-free dishes, but the menu’s 20th Century origins are still evident in timeless dishes such as osso buco, one of many veal entrees offered, and duck a l’orange, a classic crossover from France. Those and more have survived the move to Downtown.
Starters include some items that are entirely expected — like mix-and-match planks of bruschetta with familiar toppings such as chopped tomatoes, basil, garlic, goat cheese, arugula, and mozzarella. There’s a daily soup that stay within the comfortable confines of chicken and vegetable or lentil with bacon. Both are competently prepared and not excessively salty. One of the best appetizers, however, sounds more like an entree. Butternut squash ravioli are supple with a customary sauce of brown butter and sage augmented by a bit of fresh tomato on top.
There are house and Caesar salads available in portions suitable as side dishes, but several others are big meals in a bowl. The lump crab meat salad is hearty with ample crustacean flesh combined with mesclun greens, roasted asparagus, avocado, hearts of palm, grapes tomatoes, shredded carrots, a light dressing, and lemon wedges. A Mediterranean salad incorporates chicken breast, artichoke hearts, feta cheese, roasted peppers, mushrooms, red onion, cucumbers, tomatoes, and kalamata olives, all tossed in a red wine vinaigrette.
Pasta entrees are generally quite hearty at Mancuso’s. Some are topped with a marinara sauce as in the case of baked items like the cannelloni and the lasagna, both of which are filled with a blend of ground meats. Others feature preparations based more on butter and white wine. The shrimp scampi involves half a dozen plump prawns with plenty of garlic served over linguine with a side dish of broccolini and red peppers. Chicken breast and veal are both available in any of three classic preparations: parmigiana, marsala, and piccata with vegetables and pasta on the side.
One slightly whimsical aspect of the Mancuso’s menu is its “balls,” offered both in the dining room and at happy hour in the “ball room.” The restaurant offers several varieties of meat balls that can paired with pasta, risotto, or vegetables and a sauce such as arrabiatta, marinara, pesto, or alfredo.The beef-pork and veal meatballs are both traditional preparations. A newer variant, turkey meatballs, has an impressively meaty flavor but because these “balls” are among the gluten-free items and therefore made without bread crumbs, the texture is mushier than one might expect.
Mancuso’s has a full bar with an emphasis on wines and cocktails. The house-made lemonade is among the better daytime choices during a business lunch. For dessert, expect traditional choices such as a creamy cheesecake or strawberries dipped in chocolate. The move from the Borgata to the Collier Center, with an intermediate stop at Kierland Commons along the way, is just one of many transitions since the Mancuso family began its restaurant career in 1969. If any restaurant is up to the challenges of this hidden “middle child” location, Mancuso’s may be the one.
201 E. Washington St., Phoenix AZ 85004