The best way to describe Gemini Pizza, the new restaurant incubator of downtown Phoenix cocktail bar Bitter & Twisted, is to say what it isn’t. For starters, Gemini – created by chef Racan Alhoch, owner of Saint Pasta – is not pasta. You won’t find a single rigatoni on the 13-course menu. It’s not fussy food either, with wordy menu descriptions that require a dictionary or food snob to translate. It’s also not your typical nerd cocktail bar, nifty finger foods taking precedence over nifty cocktails.
So what is it? It’s a neighborhood pizzeria, yes, but it’s also Alhoch on a plate, a maverick who knows himself and where he comes from, namely New Jersey through Syrian immigrant parents.
“Because my parents are Syrian immigrants, food was a very important tool for them to help my siblings and I stay close to our culture,” says Alhoch. “On the other hand, I was born and raised in New Jersey, so I was constantly steeped in Italian American food because it’s so ubiquitous. So I think the inspiration comes from wanting to fill the gap between my two identities as a child of a third culture.
The result of this inspiration is above all pizza, the ultimate vehicle of taste and texture that offers both culture and comfort. Alhoch’s menu features five New York-style pies. All start with a two-day leavened dough made with local Hayden Mills flour and end with toppings like garlic, basil, ricotta and spicy sausage; there is even a vodka pizza with Saint Pasta’s famous vodka sauce. It all goes into a deck oven and comes out as the New York-style pizza that Alhoch ate grew.
“To me, New York style is a crispy yet soft thin crust pizza with a slightly puffy crust topped with uncooked tomatoes, low-moisture mozzarella, and cooked at a lower temperature for a longer time than pizza from Neapolitan style”, explains Alhoch. , who didn’t even know that other types of pizza existed until he was in his late teens and working at a pizzeria.
The first question here: Does Phoenix even need another pizzeria? The simple answer is that you can never have too many slice options, but it’s more than that. Alhoch isn’t trying to reinvent, reinvent, or elevate pizza — or make it something it isn’t. He just wants to give you the good stuff, to recreate what he loved as a kid. “Phoenix needs another pizza option because there are more Domino’s than Biancos,” says the chef. “Jokes aside, Phoenix needs more of literally every type of cuisine. Competition breeds quality. I want Phoenix to become a food battle dome where only the best survive.
The second question: what does a pizzeria do in a high-end cocktail bar? The couple may seem like the Jersey Shore has landed on the Vegas Strip, but Bitter & Twisted owner Ross Simon has long been Alhoch fans, and the admiration is mutual. “I remember during the pandemic, Bitter & Twisted did take-out cocktails, but it wasn’t just your usual take-out cocktails,” says Alhoch, who was impressed with Simon’s attention to detail. “They came with a paper explaining the drink and a stick.” So when Simon asked Alhoch to be a cooking partner, he gave him carte blanche, with one stipulation: Keep Bitter & Twisted’s signature Hurricane popcorn on the menu.
Like the pizza and popcorn, the rest of the menu is simple but sublime: finger-licking snacks like sumac-garlic marinated chicken wings with homemade blue cheese dressing; simple salads like fattouche and caesar; and just one dessert, a simple candy that combines tea cookies and chocolate with shredded coconut and pistachios.
“When it comes to cooking, I like simplicity rather than flexibility,” says Alhoch. “Syrian food, like Italian food, is so simple and delicious, so I think being a Syrian born and raised in New Jersey means I’ve absorbed the philosophy of simplicity through osmosis.”
It comes through this osmosis honestly. Alhoch grew up in a food-obsessed household, with his mother being his biggest influence. “When I was little, I used to climb on a stepladder while she cooked and I watched her all the time,” he recalls. “His father was a well-known restaurateur in Damascus. Even though he’s long since passed, some of the restaurants he opened in the 50s and 60s are still open and popular, so my mom has some serious cooking chops.
Don’t get too attached to one dish at Gemini Pizza. Alhoch has been known to pull out-of-control hits from the menu without warning, like Saint Pasta’s macaroni and cheese. “Vodka sauce is everywhere in New Jersey, and it’s been my favorite pasta since I was in college. I wanted Saint Pasta to be known for our vodka sauce for those reasons, so when mac and cheese became our top seller, I got rid of it,” he says. “I still get a few DMs a year about it from people who had it in the first few months.”
Not that Alhoch is trying to upset anyone. His ultimate goal with food is to instill a sense of contentment. “My favorite thing about a busy night in Saint Pasta is looking around the dining room and catching people bobbing their heads to the music while eating their pasta, sometimes with their eyes closed” , he said. “I think everyone knows what it’s like when it sounds, smells and tastes perfect. You are totally sucked in by the moment. I look at these people and know that at least for those few seconds, they’re probably thinking of nothing else. They are just enjoying life.
With Bitter & Twisted as Alhoch’s buzzing new backdrop, there are sure to be many more mind-blowing moments of bliss.
Gemini Pizza, inside the Bitter & Twisted cocktail lounge
1 Jefferson Street West
Opening hours: 4 p.m. to midnight Tuesday to Thursday (the kitchen closes at 11 p.m.); 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. Friday to Saturday (the kitchen closes at midnight)