When Chef Gio Osso brainstorms a new menu for his restaurant Virtù Honest Craft, which he does almost every week, he does so with a rock symphony in mind.
“I like to think of my food as Van Halen meets Mozart,” says Osso, whose Scottsdale, Arizona, restaurant serves wandering Mediterranean cuisine. The name Virtù, suggested to him by a friend in Italy, derives from the Machiavellian motif of achieving excellence.
Mixing Mozart, Machiavelli, and metal music, Osso is creating food “with attitude on a plate.” The miscellany has served him well, earning Virtù a semifinalist nod for best new restaurant by the James Beard Foundation and attracting attention from foodies to families—despite its opening in June, a dead month for resort-dense Scottsdale, on a deserted strip.
“We had all the odds stacked against us,” says Ty Largo, creative director of Virtù’s marketing firm, Awe Collective.”Up until Virtù opened, that entire street was this little wasteland in the middle of Old Town Scottsdale.”
The street did have the Bespoke Inn, a four-bedroom bed-and-breakfast that opened in January 2013. The Inn was constructed with space for a 1,300-square-foot restaurant that includes an outdoor courtyard.
When Osso walked into the vacant area, he got chills. He had a flashback of a trip to Italy eight years prior, when he ate at mom and pop restaurants with vegetable gardens out back, one spouse cooking with heart in the kitchen, and the other bringing food out until Osso said stop. “I said, if I’m going to do it, (the Bespoke Inn) is the place I’m going to do it,” he says.
So, the chef set about to create the restaurant he’d had in the back of his mind for nearly a decade: Mediterranean-inspired dishes that borrow flavors freely from other cuisines, if they fit. Osso’s favorite dish—also the most popular one—is a grilled Spanish octopus that’s quickly becoming Virtù’s signature recipe.
Osso learned the ropes as a chef at multiple Scottsdale restaurants and more recently as an executive chef with HMSHost at the Phoenix airport; he knows culinary creativity and he knows business. Now, as an owner, he says, he also has final say.
“With the other restaurants that I worked at, it was basically, yeah, I might be the chef, but you still have to go through the proper channels to make sure the owners are happy,” he explains. “And sometimes we weren’t on the same page, with my vision of what the food should be and what their vision was. It’s kind of difficult to do that and to be held back, in a sense.”
He gives his four-man bar crew free rein to pair their specialty cocktails with the food. A popular pick is the Ice Queen, a vodka-based take on strawberries and cream that’s topped with Champagne, egg white foam, and black pepper. Wine pairings are standard with the menu, as well.
To market Virtù, Osso relies on Awe Collective, which developed Virtù’s decor and brand story, all the way down to menu layouts, the soundtrack, and how the hostess answers the phone. Largo promoted the opening with email marketing, social media, press outreach, and traditional media placement. He also counsels Osso on the local, regional, and national dining climate so Osso can develop a menu based on extensive culinary savvy.
As diners have found Virtù, Virtù has found buzz. Esquire magazine named it one of the top 20 new restaurants in the U.S. in 2013 and the James Beard semifinalist announcement came out in February.
Over the past year, the most important lessons Osso has learned are that it’s impossible to please everyone—but it is important to try—and that details should not be overlooked. He says finding time to plan the restaurant’s path for six, three, or even one month down the road is the biggest challenge. “There are ideas floating around in my head, and it’s just a matter of putting them down on paper and just making sure they’re feasible for the restaurant, and we’ll try to go for it. We want to accomplish a lot.”
For now, though, it’s one Van Halen/Mozart amalgamation at a time.