When a new spot opens in town, we can't wait to check it out — and let you know our initial impressions, share a few photos, and dish about some menu items. First Taste, as the name implies, is not a full-blown review, but instead a peek inside restaurants that have just opened, sampling a few items, and satisfying curiosities (yours and ours).
Location: 2107 North 24th Street
Open: Less than a month
Eats: Simple food from providers all over the country and world, with an Italian lilt
Price: $10-25 per person (fish bowls cost $16 or so)
Pa'La serves food that tastes good and that you can feel good about eating. After a meal, you feel great. There is no, "Oh shit, I just ate a fist of beef and half a pound of pasta," no feelings of regret or odd stomach rumblings. You simply feel good because the ingredients are pristine, and masterfully prepared.
Claudio Urciuoli, chef at Pa'La, seems to get as much flavor as possible out of food. When I stopped in, he had rye bread from Colorado that was outrageous — nothing like any rye I had ever eaten. It was compact and dense with eye-opening earthiness and some potent floral flavors. But he, a skillful baker, didn't make the bread. Nor did he blend the limonata, a lemon soda made by an Italian brand called Gazzosa.
Who cares? Both were fantastic. So, mostly, was his prepared food. At Pa'La, whether Urciuoli makes them or not, each simple food seems to scrape the ceiling of what it can be.
Urciuoli recently cooked at Noble Eatery, house of high-end flour and 36-hour levain bread. He was born in Italy, in Liguria, the region where pesto started. Italian principles gird Urciuoli's cooking style. His erudite ingredient-forward approach, which dovetails nicely with the Noble approach, has roots in the land of pasta and focaccia. In a cuisine like Italian, where so many dishes contain just three or four ingredients, they all have to rock. Urciuoli has lived this and knows it well. It's at the heart of Pa'La, where food is cooked by the heat of a wood-burning stove or oven, and where the menu changes almost every day.
The menu morphs based on what's good. One day, that may be Hokkaido scallops. The next, that might be wild shrimp from Guaymas, Mexico. The menu is minuscule. It numbers five-ish tapas-style starters; one schiacciata (Tuscan flatbread); and one grain bowl topped with your choice between two or three fish.
All produce, grain, and flour is organic. All meat is humanely raised.
When you go, eat outside the restored 1920s bungalow housing the restaurant. The porch is spacious. It faces 24th Street and buzzes under string lights. Bassy quasi-electronic music flows, basking the porch in a thin party vibe even in the cold.
The first dish I had was a plate of rye bread, Parmesan, and speck — a pork charcuterie product like prosciutto but known for its smokiness. The smoke was mild on the Iowan speck, with a suggestion of black pepper. The bread, described to me as a "rye bread," is actually a similarly hued German bread called vollkornbrot. The Colorado bakery makes a great version. The final component — Parmesan — reaches its promise under Urciuoli's intelligent non-treatment of the cheese. To the Parm, he does nothing.
Sometimes ingredients are fluent on their own. Sometimes Urciuoli coaxes them into fluency.
A starter features McClendon's Select tomatoes of surprising quality so close to Christmas. They come with a light olive oil and buffalo mozzarella. Urciuoli rains wild Sicilian oregano on top. He sprinkles basil and Aleppo pepper, too. The mozzarella wedges look almost mossy under the generous showering of herbs. That dry wild oregano is fragrant and intense. Served with long-fermented heritage grain flatbread poufed on the edges and patched with crisp char underneath, the dish is way better than it should be.
The grain bowls are, too.
The day I visited, Urciuoli was using grain from BKW Farms (near Tucson), specifically a blend of five whole grains: kamut, spelt, Sonora wheat, einkorn, and durum. These came cooked to minimum softness, with close but slightly different degrees of bite depending on grain type. Scattered through were roasted Anaheim pepper, charred delicata squash, cannellini beans, toasted seeds (sunflower and sesame), and a hint of highfalutin soy sauce made with Adriatic sea salt in terracotta vessels.
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The grain bowl was satisfying. It had a rustic edge. It could have be dialed to high volume with more acid or heat or whatever, but Urciuoli keeps the volume low, letting the ingredients speak.
The lone bummer was the albacore tuna. Urciuoli sources it from fishermen in the Northwest who do nothing but fish for tuna using sustainable methods and, later, can their catch. The dry chunks could have used more soy love, and I couldn't help but envy other diners picking at enormous head-on shrimp.
Pa'La is a bit of a fly-by-night operation. Urciuoli may not know the day's menu until close to opening. Service is a work-in-progress, and you have to trust the chef more than usual. But given the chef and some of the flavors he's pulling, that may not be a bad thing.
Pa'La. 2107 North 24th Street, 602-795-9500.
Monday to Friday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; closed Saturday and Sunday.