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Tucked into a grove of grapefruit and orange trees along the base of South Mountain,
The House at Secret Garden is one of the best-kept secrets in Phoenix.
The house itself is historic, but the menu is contemporary Italian.
By Nora Burba Trulsson
PHOENIX It's easy to drive past The House at Secret Garden. Tucked between a shopping center and a subdivision at the base of South Mountain in Phoenix, the restaurant is screened from the busy road by dense vegetation. But after a few U-turns, you figure out where it is.
Moments later, cactus-fig margarita in hand, munching grilled bread topped with smoked trout and lulled into relaxation by the scent of grapefruit blossoms, you're likely to wonder, Why haven't I been here before?
The restaurant's hypnotic effect is thanks in equal parts to the talented young chef-owner Dustin Christofolo, the historic house, and the lush 5-acre grounds that serve as a backdrop.
Christofolo, 31, grew up in the food business. His Italian grandfather had a deli and bakery in Tempe, and his mother, Pat, who co-owns the restaurant with him, founded Santa Barbara Catering Co.
Secret Garden's two-story Spanish Colonial Revival house was built in 1929 for Walter and Blanche Strong. The Strongs planted 100 surrounding acres with grapefruit and orange trees, creating one of the area's largest orchards.
The Strongs sold the house in 1957, and it remained a citrus operation until much of the acreage was subdivided. The property later became known as the Baseline Mansion, and, from 1989 to 1999, residents hosted Earth Mother Mind Jam, an annual music festival heavy on drum circles.
In 2003, Dave Mata was driving by when he saw a small "for sale" sign in front of the property. Despite the home's benign neglect, he and his wife, Nancy, purchased it, cleaned it up, restored the house and created an event and wedding venue with the construction of an adjacent banquet facility. The house was also listed on the city of Phoenix historic registry.
At the Matas' invitation, Christofolo opened the restaurant in 2010 after expanding the kitchen and planting a vegetable garden near a gnarled old carob tree.
The menu? "It has an Italian backbone, but it's progressive and always changing," Christofolo says. "I like to see what's in my garden or what local farmers have. We'll always have favorites like the pork-belly appetizer, grilled lamb chops, pappardelle and, for dessert, sweet potato cake."
If he has time, Christofolo will chat with you about his food and the home's history.
If he's busy, have another margarita, order dinner and enjoy the hypnotic, historic atmosphere.