Food Critic Dominic Armato

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Hear about the best eats in the Valley from the Arizona Republic’s new food critic, Dominic Armato.

TED SIMONS: Long-time Arizona Republic restaurant critic Howard Seftel recently vacated his post after 23 years on the job. The Republic has a new dining critic. He is Dominic Armato, who joins us now to talk about his plans to keep foodies and casual diners up to date. Welcome to Arizona Horizon.

DOMINIC ARMATO: Thank you very much.

TED SIMONS: Who are you, by the way?

DOMINIC ARMATO: Who am I? In what sense? I am a food nerd, is what I am.

TED SIMONS: People want to know about you.

DOMINIC ARMATO: This is my thing. You know, I kind of -- I am a big food geek. I managed to go to the top here, so this is a shock to me. But, I am sorry, go ahead.

TED SIMONS: I was going to ask, as far as a dining critic, what do you see your job as being?

DOMINIC ARMATO: You know, it's funny because we're trying to take a different angle on this. There is a very traditional dining critic where you go and you review, you are anonymous. It's about value and trying to represent to the diners You know, what a particular restaurant is all about. What they can expect when they go. I come at it from -- I come at it from a different angle. I spent years working on community food boards. Organizing community groups and trying to get people excited about what restaurants we have. So, I, you know, I am trying to bring that to this role, where it's not just about hey, here's what this restaurant is like, although I do that, but it's also about, you know, trying to bring diners together and trying to get people together and get people excited about it and let's share this information and get it out there.

TED SIMONS: Compare a dining critic to a restaurant reviewer.

DOMINIC ARMATO: A dining critic to a restaurant reviewer.

TED SIMONS: Do you put criticism in there and go beyond just whether the towels are clean and the food is good?

DOMINIC ARMATO: Certainly you have to. The thing is, you know, there are still reviews, you know. It is part of my responsibility to do that. That sort of very traditional you know, presenting it for the, you know, the food and the room and the service. These are important things, but, you know, what I want to bring to the role is to expand on that and turn it into more of a sense of community. Where does this restaurant sit within the community? What is it about it that can get people excited? What is it, what is it about it, this place, that is unique and not whether it's good, but how does it fit into the context of the restaurant scene here. And how can we, how can we use what this restaurant has to try to show people, help them to learn something about the history and about the people making this great ingredient and about the techniques that the chef employs. Trying to expand it and build on that.

TED SIMONS: You are purposely not anonymous, I figure figured that out when you agreed to do the show. Why are you taking this route because the mystery diner, the secret shopper, that's a struck tradition and some say you get an honest review out of it.

DOMINIC ARMATO: And it is, I mean, it is -- I respect. I love total critical anonymity as an ideal but we're trying to do something different. I think that in this age it's getting harder for critics for me, I think it was hard ten years ago for critics to remain anonymous, much less in the area where messages are sent around so quickly, snap a picture. I think that it is getting more and more difficult for critics to remain anonymous, and so when you have, I think, now that the ability for them to remain anonymous, the likelihood that they can, has been diminished. You get into the position where there is a trade-off that is valuable and has value, or maybe you give up something with that, but in turn you get something back. You can do other things with the role that are not traditional that can be exciting and new and different, so that's what we're trying to do. I can't say it's better or worse, it's just a different way of approaching it.

TED SIMONS: Not being anonymous and your emphasis on community and the good feeling and that sort of thing, is there a concern to get a little too close, a little too Buddy Buddy with the chefs and the restaurant owners?

DOMINIC ARMATO: You can't. You just can't. It has to be, it has to be a professional relationship. You know. You can be friendly but at the end of the day, you know, I can sit down with a chef and say, tell me about this dish, let's make a video of it and let's teach people about how this is done. You know. When it comes time to write a review, look, I have got to be honest. You know. This is a problem and this is a problem. I don't necessarily enjoy it, but that's how it is. I have a responsibility to readers to be as straightforward as I can be.

TED SIMONS: Do you have a good community minded eatery that just serves mediocre type of food? And can you have a top shelf Foodie type of place that just doesn't have a good esprit de cour?

DOMINIC ARMATO: Absolutely. But You know, that's a sort of thing that would figure more into when you have a place that is wonderful for the community. A great story, and it's a restauranteur who is really involved in doing exciting things, that's something you approach more outside of a standard review context whereas when it comes down to a review, a weekly review, that's got to be you know, that's got to be straightforward. This is undercooked. You know, service wasn't so sharp, and you have to be honest about that. So, it's a challenge, it's a line to walk and it's a challenge, but it's one that I am looking forward to trying to do because not a lot of people have tried to go this path so far. I want to try to find a way to make it work and to make it -- to do special things with it.

TED SIMONS: Give me a definition of a good meal and of a bad meal.

DOMINIC ARMATO: A good meal, is any meal you leave feeling better than you went in, I guess. I joked that the only -- I joked that the only food I don't like is bad food, which, you know, bring it all. There is a good restaurant, it's not just in the food -- sometimes, the food, the service, they make you feel like you are at home to a certain extent. Whether that's through incredible service, whether that's comforting or just through the incredible energy and love that goes into the food, itself. I think that the best ones make you feel like you are a part of it, a little bit, and the ones that I think. I think the bad ones are the ones that don't. Even if maybe something is prepared more technically correct, or you know, they check the boxes, you know, if there is not that connection, then maybe it's not -- it can leave you feeling empty in the end.

TED SIMONS: So, you have taken over and you are off and running and doing the new thing now, and we all know where you go, and we have seen you out there. If I have got people coming in from out of town. I want to impress these people, so much. I want to say we are, we are San Francisco and, New York if you just look hard enough. Where do I go? Where do I take them?

DOMINIC ARMATO: With the caveat that I think that we need to get people out of the mindset of what is the best, I think that this settlement of the top ten, the best, I think that that's -- I think it's more interesting to me to look at what makes all of these different places You know, unique and amazing.

TED SIMONS: Give me --

DOMINIC ARMATO: I will give you one of my favorites. That is, I think F&B, in old town Scottsdale, not just because the food is great and they make everybody feel like a rock star, but because, you know, when I talked about that community context, they are so tied into the growers and bringing out players. The Arizona wines. You know, they have the wine dinners all the time. It's such - it's not just, you know, local has become a buzz word, you know. Become a trendy thing but there are people who talk the talk and people who walk the walk. It's so exciting to be able to bring somebody in to a restaurant like that, that is not only fabulous but also puts forward the best of what Arizona has.

TED SIMONS: Congratulations on the gig, good luck to you, and we'll keep an eye on it.

DOMINIC ARMATO: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.

TED SIMONS: You are invited to give us more recommendations.

DOMINIC ARMATO: Any time.

Dominic Armato: Arizona Republic's new food critic

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