Every time I see the phrase “hidden gem” in print, I mentally kick off a round of eye rolling. If it’s hidden, how do you know about it? And if it’s a gem, it’s not going to be hidden for long. That kind of verbiage is part of the repertoire of the intellectually lazy. Or so I thought, until I decided to write about Oven + Vine. It’s a gem, to be sure. And in this case, it is hidden.
Oven + Vine is only accessible one way, if you are coming by car. Located in the Willo Historic District on Vernon, a street closed off to traffic from Central, you must get here by driving southbound on Central Avenue. Vernon itself is closed off on the other side for on-street parking, and there is no light at the intersection.
Once you’ve found parking, the restaurant is still not visible from the street. It’s located in a restored historic residence set back behind the small outcropping that was once Shine Coffee, now Roll Over Donuts. If ever there was a place for locals, by locals, Oven + Vine is it. You must know where it is to find it. It’s sort of the Jedi approach to restaurateurship. And personally, I love the concept. It takes away the pretension around see-and-be-seen places, and forces all of the attention on the food and experience. And both are worth having, again and again.
If on-street parking isn’t your thing, there’s a tiny lot that always seems able to make room for one more. Pro tip: get here via the light rail, and avoid the parking altogether. Outside you’ll find a charming assortment of seating and games, although the lawn darts I saw on my first visit don’t seem to be there any longer. I’ll admit the outdoor seating is more enjoyable when it isn’t so cold, but you’ll find loads to warm you up inside.
I’m not sure what is the star of the space—the enormous wood-fired oven that drives the concept (from the name to the entire menu), or the absolutely stunning surroundings. The bar includes a garage-style door that, when open in warmer times, turns the bar area into something special.
Use the bread to scoop up the mushrooms and melty fresh parm.
More seating is found throughout, and every time I’ve been there, I’ve spent a portion of each meal just enjoying how beautiful it is, with its exposed brickwork, rustic wood tables and impressively huge wood-fired oven.
Ahh, the oven. This monstrosity turns out some tasty treats. On the appetizer front, you’ll love the O + V roasted mushrooms ($5). Once you get past the fact that they are roasted whole, you’ll dig into them and finish post haste. I decided to use the pita-like bread, more for scooping, since the shape of the mushrooms makes digging in a bit wonky. No matter—the taste is worth it. Use the bread to scoop up the mushrooms and melty fresh parm.
The Burrata ($6) is a winner. A small ice cream-sized scoop of burrata comes aside a pile of tasty bread, with a thick, sweet aged balsamic and olive oil drizzled on the side. Its simplicity allows the quality of the ingredients to shine.
You’ll also love their house specialties, like Slow Braised Beef ($14). It’s like hipster pot roast—delicious beef cooked until it shreds into itself, and the kicky Ancho chili sauce is just spicy enough to make itself known.
The Chicken Lasagna ($10) is interesting—a giant hunk with marinara ladled atop before a warming stint in the oven. I get non-traditional lasagnas, and the chicken here was very well cooked and flavored. However, it could have benefited from some more cheese. And some bread. Honestly, any marinara this good deserves to be sopped up. And if you are going for it on a huge square of carbs, why not toss in some extra bread for that?
My absolute favorite thing here is The Bacon-Tarian ($9). This gorgeous sandwich comes on a fresh roll straight out of Pane Bianco’s playbook (it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Marco himself made these), and is jam-packed with layers and layers and layers of unctuous bacon cooked to perfection. And by perfection I mean gorgeous fatty meat juices seeping into every crevice of the bread. The greens and tomatoes keep it from becoming a total fat bomb (the best kind of bomb, actually), and the zesty jalapeno remoulade was mild enough to say hello without overpowering the sandwich.
Of course, you should try a flatbread. I’m partial to the Mozzarella Pesto ($9). The crust is dense enough to allow the slice to be held without the ingredients sliding off, but still soft enough to indicate its freshness. Their house-made basil pesto is fragrant, and the herbal hit balances the melty goodness that is the mozzarella. Someone clearly loves olive oil, and on one visit perhaps this flatbread had a titch too much drizzled on top. I rather enjoyed it, but one person at our table thought it veered into the “too much” category.
And what is too much, really, when dinner is all about the carbs? I love Claire’s Chocolate Torte ($7). This exceptionally rich dessert demands your full attention. A cross between flourless chocolate cake and a decadent brownie, I attempted to eat it all. Attempted. For once, a rich chocolate dessert was too rich to finish. Not that I minded, since I was willing to embarrass myself by wrapping up two bites of torte to take home.
Clearly, any restaurant with “Vine” in its name has an impressive wine program. They do, but our jury was split on one visit. We weren’t sure what was more impressive, the beer or wine selections. However, I feel the best course of action on each visit is to count on their servers. Laid back and exceptionally well trained, there wasn’t a single staff person who couldn’t make the right recommendation for the right person, pairing wise.
So while I am fighting the urge to call Oven + Vine a hidden gem, there is no mistaking the fact that it is kind of hard to find. But isn’t that like life, really? The good things are always right there. You just need to know where to turn to find them. And once you do, you’ll make your own favorite pathway there. By bike, car, light rail or simply walking, Oven + Vine is the quintessential neighborhood spot where everyone will eventually know your name.
Oven + Vine
14 W. Vernon, Phoenix
Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.