By Christina Fuoco-Karasinski
Jon Carr is everybody’s neighbor in Northeast Mesa.
He greets his guests at Alessia’s Ristorante Italiano like they’re lifelong friends. Carr unapologetically injects humor into his conversations, making diners feel at home.
But there’s more to Alessia’s than Carr’s humor and the team-based serving staff. It’s about the central- to northern-style Italian dishes made by his Hawaiian-born wife, Shari, who trained with a Roman chef for ten years in Honolulu.
“She’s just a natural cook,” he says. “The big difference between us and other Italian restaurants is we stick true to Italy. We do have a few Americanized dishes, like Alfredo. But she knows the proper ways and techniques.”
Shari Carr makes each sauce on the menu from scratch when guests order the dishes, whether it’s gnocchi amatriciana ($18) with bacon, onion, garlic and white wine in a tomato sauce; or spaghetti Bolognese with ground beef, carrots, celery and onions in tomato sauce ($17). Because each dish is made with care, meals can take 30 to 40 minutes. Nearly everything is built on fresh tomato, basil and Parmesan cheese.
But there is a variety of appetizers to keep guests happy during the wait, like bruschetta ($8-$11); formaggio di capra, warm goat cheese with roasted red bell peppers in rosemary olive oil ($10); and calamari fresco with fresh tomatoes, garlic and basil ($11).
“People have to realize that we’re still a mom and pop,” he says. “My wife and her sous chef make absolutely everything. There are no fryers. There’s no grill. There aren’t different cook stations. Everything is built on a stove.
“When you see it happening, it’ll blow your mind. There are 16 burners. That’s only four four-tops. We’ll do 200-plus covers (dinners) on a Friday/Saturday night. We’re not a slop-and-drop restaurant, where you can tell the sauce was ladled over the top.”
Shari’s talents are so appreciated that when she and Jon visit her sister in Florence, her dishes are requested. Jon is asked to choose the wine.
“It’s a compliment, ultimately,” he says.
Alessia’s, named after the Carrs’ niece in Italy, has been at McKellips and Higley roads since June 2004. The couple moved from Honolulu, where they were working in the restaurant industry, in June 2003 after the economy crashed following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Alessia’s opened with 12 tables in a dining room and out on a patio. Now it boasts a bar and wine store as well.
“We’ve been very lucky,” he says. “We’re not pretentious. Some people see it’s nice in here and they don’t expect that because we’re in a strip mall. You can come in with shorts and a T-shirt.
“We’re not trying to be anything too fancy. We’re the neighborhood Italian restaurant. We have a beautiful selection of wine that’s all Italian, given one or two.”
They yearn to school guests on what they know about wine. Alessia’s hosts wine events several times per month, including wine tastings on Wednesday and Thursday, November 1 and 2.
The Carrs are sticking true to what they wanted to do: open a mom-and-pop restaurant.
“Even though we expanded, we’re here every night as much as we can be,” says Carr, who grew up in upstate New York. “We just love what we do. We love our locals, and our regulars are great. I love getting to know everybody. It’s fun.”