“The beauty of the world is how different the cultures are, and how similar, too,” says Chef Claudio Urciuoli. “You ask, ‘How do you cook fish in Thailand, and how do you cook fish in a small island off of Sicily? You find out that the spices are different because of what grows in each place, and the cultures are different because of how they think and act. But you find out what’s the same: the enjoyment of the fish.”
Local fans of Urciuoli’s Pa’La Wood Fire Cooking, an out-of-the-box success when it opened in a 24th Street bungalow in 2018, have lately been finding that same “enjoyment of the fish” at Pa’La’s new downtown location. The 6,000-square-foot space at Second and Washington streets, one among the chain of TPQ Foods in the Valley, is open-roofed and features a bar and large-ish lounge.
“We opened a few weeks ago, very quietly,” Urciuoli says. “Every day we progress, we get a little better. Our chef is great, the reaction is great, but we’ll do a grand opening when I feel comfortable that everything is perfect.”
Early word is that the new restaurant is close to perfect already. Urciuoli’s followers likely expect nothing less. His tenure in Phoenix has been hectic and impressive, and includes time spent running Chris Bianco's Italian Restaurant, executive-cheffing at now-defunct Noca, and wowing lunch crowds with Noble Eatery alongside baker and Noble Bread partner Jason Raducha before opening the first Pa’La. Urciuoli says he’s taken that restaurant’s most popular attributes and expanded them.
“Our other location, the kitchen is very tiny, we have counter service, we do seafood and sandwiches,” he says of the original Pa’La, which will remain in operation. “This one is a regular restaurant with servers, about 90 seats, and another 90 in the lounge. We have a very nice bar where we’re doing small bites, tapas, or whatever.”
Urciuoli and Chef Jason Alford are tweaking Pa’La’s Mediterranean-inspired, seafood-heavy menu with South American spices and Japanese influences. “You’re gonna see pastas, also a couple of pizzas because we installed a traditional pizza oven here,” Urciuoli promises. “But we’re gonna do some raw fish preparations, some pastries, some new desserts.”
Alford, who made his name with innovative Japanese steaks and sushi plates at Roka Akor, is masterminding this fusion of Asian and Mediterranean recipes.
“He sees the similarities in those two cuisines,” Urciuoli says of Alford. “So he’ll be doing some rice dishes, some seafood with Japanese spices. We are just going to transform the food, and also keep it simple.”
Simple, distinctive food made with pure, often locally grown ingredients has become Urciuoli’s calling card. He’s a beast about quality, he admits, demanding the best semolina for his pastas, heirloom beans, Tuscan cheeses, house-made polenta, and locally churned butter — but never in his cooking, he insists; butter is for baking, extra-virgin olive oil is for cooking.
He swears his love of pure ingredients has less to do with the newish farm-to-table trend than with his upbringing. “I grew up, my grandmother had a grocery store,” he recalls of his childhood in Italy. “She was always looking for the best ingredients to sell in her store, so that was what I learned to do. When I was lucky to work in California, I shopped for seafood in San Francisco that was right out of the ocean.”
Urciuoli thinks people are more aware of what goes into their food these days, thanks to the pandemic. “They’ve been spending a lot of time at home and so they’re investing more time in learning to cook. They can say now, ‘Oh, let me look for fresh ingredients,’ and they’re shopping more carefully because they want it to be healthy to eat, but they want it to taste good.”
If Urciuoli is glad that more people are learning to cook for themselves, he hopes they’ll set aside their amateur cheffing occasionally.
“We want them to come in here,” he says, “and be inspired the way we were inspired by our mothers and grandmothers to cook these foods for them.”
Pa'La is now open at 132 East Washington Street.
Keep Phoenix New Times Free... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Phoenix with no paywalls.