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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Pork kebab $7