Cafe Reviews

Claudio Urciuoli Offers Fresh, Wood-Fired Food at Pa’La

Jackie Mercandetti
Bufala burrata schiacciata salad
Is there a more wholesome dish in metro Phoenix right now than the Navarro bowl at Pa’La, chef Claudio Urciuoli’s new midtown restaurant? It’s the kind of meal your cardiologist would approve of: a grain salad flush with nutty, chewy, slightly obscure-sounding heirloom grains like spelt, kamut, einkorn, and durum. It’s tossed with toasted seeds, some beans and fire-roasted veggies, and lightly dressed with barrel-aged Spanish cabernet vinegar, extra-virgin olive oil, and a touch of meaty, umami-rich WuWanWo soy sauce.

The Navarro bowl, which is named after the Chilean big wave surfer Ramon Navarro (and not the tragic Mexican silent film star of the same name) is understated and delicious. It’s a quietly virtuous dish that crackles with texture, and whose alternately sweet, savory, and meaty notes are subtle and refined.
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Urciuoli writing the day's menu.
Jackie Mercandetti
You may remember eating some version of the Navarro bowl at Urciuoli’s former restaurant, Noble Eatery. Since then, the feel-good grain bowl has undergone some revisions; namely, the Navarro is now a vehicle for a rotating selection of carefully sourced seafood. One day, your bowl might be topped with springy Nantucket Bay scallops, procured from a high-end local seafood shop like Nelson’s Meat + Fish. Another day, it might be wild-caught Louisiana shrimp, or maybe some herb-seasoned Island Trollers alder-smoked albacore, a West Coast canned tuna that retails for around $12 a can. Whatever you pick, it’ll be cooked over open flames on the restaurant’s wood-fired grill. The fish will be a little sweaty and smoke-tinged, and artfully draped on top of your salad in a way that tempts you to fire up your Instagram account.

You feel nourished after eating a Navarro bowl. You feel poorer by about $16, too, but also like you’ve made an investment in your well-being. And in a very small and roundabout way, it feels like you’ve contributed to the local economies of both Umbria and central Phoenix.

The Navarro bowl anchors the menu at Pa’La, which Urciuoli opened last fall in collaboration with Tortas Paquime’s Omar Alvarez. It’s a simple dish that seems to gather up many of Urciuoli’s culinary obsessions and themes: fire and wood smoke, locally grown heritage grains, impeccably sourced seafood, and bottles of olive oil and vinegar flown in from medieval towns in Spain and Italy.

For longtime fans of Urciuoli, then, Pa’La feels like a back-to-basics turn on a long and impressive résumé. Over the years, the chef has led high-end resort kitchens; cooked alongside food world luminaries like Nancy Silverton and Chris Bianco; and baked thousands of bread loaves from scratch at Noble Bread.

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Pa'La features tapas dishes.
Jackie Mercandetti
Now Urciuoli is in his own space, a crisp, white-washed bungalow on 24th Street with grape vines growing on the side of the building. The dining room, airy and spare, only holds a handful of diners at a time. But there’s a spacious outdoor patio deck, and a beachy front patio filled with blooming foliage and a fire pit. The once-lackluster space, which used to house a location of Simply Bread, now feels like a small, cheerful oasis on traffic-choked 24th Street.

The menu is relatively modest in scope: about a half-dozen Spanish tapas, Italian schiacciata, a salad, and of course, the Navarro bowl. All the day’s selections are handwritten on an oversize chalkboard menu hanging behind the counter, and they change daily.

Urciuoli seems born to make tapas — spare, elegant dishes that live or die by the quality of their ingredients. And so a meal here might start with a slice of nutty Manchego cheese with some tomato jam, or a snack bowl of meaty, sweet olives from the south of France, paired with spice-flecked Marcona almonds. There might be a very good slice of tortilla española, the soft potato omelette punched up with sweet peppers. On at least two occasions, I’ve run across a nicely crispy, salty pork kebab, paired with a spicy hummus. If you spot them on the chalkboard menu, try the boquerones: brilliantly marinated fresh anchovies, served with a side of soft, fennel-flecked potatoes.

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Marinated anchovies are a joy.
Jackie Mercandetti
The backbone of Pa’La is the kitchen’s hardworking, hand-built wood-burning oven and its forged-steel grill, where Urciuoli’s team of young kitchen dudes maneuver sauce pans over open flames. From the oven, you might catch sight of somebody pulling out freshly baked schiacciata, an slightly airy Italian flat bread layered with wilted arugula, flaps of smoked ham, and delightfully rich, eggy bundles of olive oil-slicked mozzarella.

One of the most compelling things I’ve eaten at Pa’La, at least so far, is Urcioli’s bufala burrata salad. The cheese is not made in-house; an employee recently told me that it’s flown in from Caserta, Italy, three times a week on British Airways. The bulbous, herb-laced mozzarella is irresistibly fresh and rich, and served with chewy slices of fresh-baked schiacciata. Buried under the cheese, there are tomatoes and greens, lightly dressed in olive oil. It’s a simple, exquisite dish that’s quick to sell out around lunchtime.

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Louisiana bowl (left) and schiacciata
Jackie Mercandetti
You should know that Pa’La is neither a full-service restaurant, nor a destination for a rapid-fire lunch break. You order at the counter, where somebody calmly explains the provenance of the fish, the grains, the cheeses, the olive oils. At Pa’La, you experience the curious juxtaposition of eating some of the finest ingredients in town out of biodegradable paper plates and bowls. You finish lunch with a shot of robust espresso, served in what looks like a Dixie cup. Everything is simple and casual — but also kind of fancy. This, you realize, is all part of Urciuoli’s laid-back ethos: use the best ingredients you can get your hands on. Treat them well and present them simply. Good things, inevitably, will follow.

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Pa'La cooks in an old bungalow.
Jackie Mercandetti
2107 North 24th Street
Hours: Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday 5:30 to 9 p.m.; closed Sunday
Navarro bowl $16
Bufala burrata schiacciata salad $22
Boquerones $7
Pork kebab $7