As a mixed-use project occupying two full city blocks, CityScape might be thought of as having many different strands that are woven together in an attempt to offer a little something for everyone. There’s Mexican food, sushi, chain sandwich shops, a contemporary American restaurant, and, not surprisingly, an Italian restaurant. Appropriately enough, it’s called “The Strand,” and it’s marketed as “Urban Italian.” That doesn’t mean the food of Rome or Milan per se, but instead familiar “red sauce” Italian-American food offered in a downtown Phoenix setting.
The restaurant occupies space in CityScape and, like its neighbors, has been assigned a confusing address. Ignore the “2 East Jefferson” designation and instead look for the restaurant entrance on First Street between Jefferson and Washington. The light rail stations at Washington / Central, First Avenue / Jefferson, Third Street / Washington, and Third Street / Jefferson are all just a few blocks away. Bike racks are found along First Street just slightly to the north of the restaurant with more at various locations in and around CityScape.
There’s a small, well-shaded patio that addresses First Street. The entrance to the restaurant is somewhat hidden in the shadow of escalators that lead to CityScape’s second floor plaza. The dining room’s decor lands somewhere between tourist poster cliche and contemporary design. The walls feature murals of ancient Roman landmarks such as the Colosseum, but the overhead lights have a strikingly modern design, perhaps inspired by tubes of pasta. A bar is found toward the back of the restaurant. A little tucked away, it is a good choice for solo diners.
Appetizers include crowd pleasers such as garlic bread with marinara, fried zucchini with ranch, crisp calamari, and a basic tomato and mozzarella bruschetta. A bit lighter in texture and bolder in flavor, the angry shrimp derive their mild but noticeable fire from Calabrian chilies while white wine and shallots add other nuances. A classic caprese salad pairs slivers of fresh mozzarella with sliced tomatoes and sprigs of basil. Butternut squash ravioli, found here rather than among the pasta entrees, are dressed in a traditional brown butter sage sauce.
Other dishes suitable for sharing are the salads, all of which are generous. One of them, the caramelized pear salad, strikes a suitable balance among sweet, tart, and salty flavors. Smooth, creamy goat cheese contrasts in texture with crunchy walnuts with poached pears on top of it all. The Caesar salad is fresh and crisp. Aficionados may notice a lack of the distinctive taste of anchovies, but most diners will probably be content with the mix of romaine, shaved parmesan, and croutons — thankfully not overdressed as so many versions of this crowd-pleaser can be.
Minestrone soup is a constant on the menu, offered as a full bowl or in a smaller version as a side. It’s a fairly standard version of the classic and, unlike so many restaurants soups, nicely restrained in saltiness. It’s a good accompaniment to any of the panini on the menu, which are a staple of the lunchtime menu. The meatball sandwich involves a seamless meld of ground meat, cheese, and bread with marinara on the side for dipping. The chicken and turkey panini are both straightforward and pleasing, and the caprese is a classic meatless choice.
As expected, pasta occupies its own section of the menu. Italian-American “red sauce” classics such as spaghetti and meatballs, pasta Bolognese, and lasagna are all present as expected. Stuffed pastas include smoked gouda ravioli with bits of grilled vegetables intermingling with the cheese and indulgent tortellini stuffed with beef and topped with a sage cream. Specials advertised on a sidewalk sign offer some variety. A bowl of crab linguini is filled not only with plenty of genuine crustacean meat, but also fresh asparagus and a chunky tomato sauce.
Under the heading of “big plates,” diners will find entrees such as chicken parmesan with a side of penne pasta, steak or salmon with mashed potatoes, and the choice of either chicken marsala or piccata on a bed of potatoes and spinach. In a departure from Italian-American tradition, there’s no veal on the menu, with poultry offering an alternative that seems more consistent with the play-it-safe approach that prevails for the most part at the Strand. Similarly, there’s a nearly inevitable but perfectly serviceable Strand burger on the menu.
One last category not to be forgotten in an Italian-American menu is pizzas. The Strand offers half a dozen pies a foot in diameter, sized for two to share with an appetizer or salad or suitable as an entree for one hungry person. The topping combinations begin with a traditional margherita and become a bit more inventive with a mix of chicken, artichoke, and bacon. There’s also a build-your-own option. Drinks include a selection of wines and craft beers. Cocktails veer away from tradition with a frozen Italian margarita offered as a bargain special.
The dessert menu includes Italian-American favorites such as tiramisu and ricotta cheese cake. A chocolate lava cake seems like something that might be found at countless other restaurants, regardless of their menus, but works as a filling after-dinner treat, especially when the large slice is shared by two or more. As an original CityScape tenant still in operation a decade later, the Strand doesn’t pretend to be the ultimate in Italian authenticity, but for the downtown office lunch or event attendee clientele, it works as one of many strands in the city’s urban fabric.
2 E. Jefferson St., Phoenix AZ 85004
Jefferson / 1st Avenue or Jefferson / 3rd Street stations (eastbound)
Washington / 3rd Street or Washington / Central stations (westbound)