Fat Ox4
Fiera del Bue Grasso is the Festival of the Fat Ox, an event that began in 1910 in Piedmont, Italy, to celebrate the harvest. Communities would share the bounty and, of course, a tasty fatted calf. Held every year since then, with only one omission (in 1944 because of the war), this holiday is meant to bring a community of friends and family together to enjoy seasonal food and its power to unite people over a great meal. Matt Carter’s Fat Ox, opened in November, is a rousing American take on this regional Italian experience.

Anyone who has eaten at any of Carter’s other restaurants, such as Zinc Bistro or The Mission, will recognize his taste in interior design—loads of small tables, intended for intimate conversation; beautiful lighting; and well-conceived and executed dishes. Dining at the Fat Ox is an exercise in culinary theater, and you’ll notice the difference from the second you walk in.
Fat Ox
Stationed in front of the door is a valet, which is appropriate, because this is Scottsdale. It’s also a nice touch at the end of the meal, as our talented server James facilitated the pickup of our car and alerted us when it arrived—but I’m getting ahead of myself. The hostess stand was staffed by three charming attendants; one brought me a complimentary glass of Lambrusco while our party and table were being assembled. As we waited, we noticed an enormous coterie of staff around the space.

At our table, we were introduced to the aforementioned James, and also to Mikhail, who was likewise taking care of us. An impressive menu awaited, designed on a classic Italian approach, highlighting four courses and dessert. Given the impressive array of choices, we elected to trust our server and put the meal in his hands. After a quick chat about allergies, preferences and dislikes, James curated our entire meal. This approach made for an uninterrupted flow of courses, expertly paced, without breaks to choose the next one. For our antipasti, we had the Tableside Caesar ($17), which felt like delectable performance art. A gentleman we dubbed “artista insalata,” equipped with a wooden cart, whipped up a perfect salad of baby gem lettuce, kicky anchovy dressing, Parmesan croutons and fried capers.

For the second course, formaggio e salumi, we tried the Burrata di Bufala ($15) and Fra’Mani Pancetta ($15 per person). Burrata is one of my favorites—a tender, fresh, ricotta-like center surrounded by a firmer layer of mozzarella, traditionally made from the milk of water buffalo. It’s light, creamy and delicate, and here it is perfect. Served in a bowl with an arugula salad, ribbons of prosciutto and a smattering of pesto, it’s so light and flavorful it makes me think of spring. The pancetta was like your favorite charcuterie—strands of melt-in-your-mouth, feather-light meat, house-cured for 24 months.
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You won’t feel rushed here. The time between courses is enough to feel satiated, and allows you to take in the landscape. Although the space, when at capacity, seats nearly 250 in two dining rooms, it never feels crowded. Take the time to watch the play of staff—the ratio seems close to one staff member for every two guests. There appeared to be someone assigned to curate every part of the experience—drinks, serving, tableside preparations, lighting (we watched a gentleman adjust the brightness down as the evening went on) and audio. However, given all of the gorgeous hard surfaces (think painted exposed brick, repurposed barn wood flooring, etc.), it did have a tendency to get a bit loud.

The pasta course, primi piatti, is where things get really interesting. You’ll notice at this point in your meal that each dish is served on a distinct plate that isn’t repeated until dessert (assuming you have the Tableside Caesar). I can’t imagine the sheer volume of storage required for this attention to detail. But back to the food: I am still thinking about the Garganelli ($22), long, tubular pasta coated in truffle butter, Parmesan and speck (also house-cured). The Strozzapreti ($15), sort of an elongated cavatelli shape, is served in Fat Ox’s version of a red sauce—slightly sweet and elegantly simple. I also loved the Rigatoni Lamb Verde ($18), a savory green tomato sauce loaded with pecorino and crunchy bits of fennel pollen. We shared each pasta, and to be honest, if you’re taking the four-course route—and you should, at least once in your life—I would suggest sharing each course. The courses aren’t caricatures of fine dining, with minuscule portions artfully arranged, but rather ample portions you can easily share. Can share—you are fully justified in not wanting to, when it’s this good.

In the Italian tradition, the last course, secondi piatti, is the protein. We went for it. The Porterhouse ($110) is 28 ounces of dry-aged beef, cut for you. It was perfectly cooked, the salt-and-pepper crust just right, adding depth to the lovely fat edge of the tenderloin side (my favorite). The marbling on the strip side was also gorgeous and impressive, and we all but inhaled it. Anyone who loves beef can attest to the skill it took in the kitchen to get a hunk of beef that large and impressive cooked to perfection.
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The Rotisserie Jidori Chicken is no slouch, either. We elected the A La Diavolo style ($30), which came doused in a fiery red-pepper sauce. Perfectly moist chicken—I’m really struggling for the words. There is a tendency to bypass chicken in fine dining, and I think that is a mistake. Truly well-prepared chicken is substantially different from what even the best cooks can approximate at home. One day in the kitchen of my dreams, with a 12-burner Wolf range with rotisserie, maybe I will be able to. Until then, I’ll order chicken like this—perfectly moist. Add a side of Guistos Polenta ($10) to round out the course. Be warned, polenta this decadent can only be prepared with almost equal parts butter and cream. It’s worth it, though. Small crocks of polenta with bubbly chars on the top—the way roasted dishes should always arrive after spending time in a toasty oven. After a couple of bites we lost all of our manners and ate the polenta straight out of the crock—it never made it to our plates. Why waste time that way?

Ahh, dessert. If you’ve made it this far, you must think I’m a glutton, and perhaps it is true. For me, some of the finest moments in my life involve good food and friends. This meal was both for me. You can’t go wrong with the Gianduja Frangelico Tiramisu ($9). The bitter hit of coffee is replaced, thankfully, by coffee ice cream, and with a smattering of chocolate balls, this roasted banana confection hits all the high notes—sweet, creamy, light, fluffy, and gone in 60 seconds. If you order coffee, it will come in a somewhat dainty French press. Think about ordering your own if you want more than one cup.

Not all meals are this grand. And not every day is the Festival of the Fat Ox. There is a reason that holidays around food and community survive. Taking the time to slow down, relax and engage with those around you is the key to a good life. Restaurants like Fat Ox remind me that while every day might not be a holiday, we should try to live like it is.
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Fat Ox
6316 N. Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale
(480) 307-6900
Sunday to Thursday: 5–10 p.m.
Friday & Saturday: 5–11 p.m.

Photos: Nicki Hedayatzadeh