Two things about Parma Italian Roots in North Scottsdale augur that you may be in for a different kind of Italian meal.
First, in a back corner, on a tiny white shelf, stands a copy of Flour + Water: Pasta, a canonical tome on progressive pasta. Its spine is stripped and fraying, looking so worn that it was likely used not dozens but hundreds of times.
The second thing is the nod to Parma and roots. Parma, a town in Emilia-Romagna, gives its name to Parmesan and prosciutto di Parma. Many Italians see Emilia-Romagna as their country’s most indulgent food region: a land of butter and broth, ancient egg pasta and long-cured pork. For six weeks in 2010, I worked on two farms in Emilia-Romagna, a sunburnt early summer run of hoeing vegetable fields and pruning grapevines. Despite the long days, I did not lose weight.
At Parma Italian Roots, two divergent threads knot: progressive Italian cooking, and the calcified food traditions of a country with regions like that of Parma, where hard cheese has been made the same way since before the printing press.
And it is at the pasta course — where else? — that things get really interesting.
Chris Gentile, the chef who opened Parma Italian Roots on the last day of summer 2018, when he was 28 years old, can roll pasta. Gentile has cooked at places like Alinea (Chicago) and Per Se (New York). Since he was 24, he has been the executive chef of Double Standard, an Italian restaurant in San Diego. Parma Italian Roots is similar. Pizza. Pasta. Starters. A few mains. Since opening Roots, Gentile has returned to his restaurant in San Diego. His former sous chef at Double Standard, Rael Coronado, now runs the north Scottsdale kitchen.
That kitchen opens to a 95-seat dining room Gentile helped design, a cozy space with an ornate tile floor and music from ultrachill artists like Pretty Lights and Massive Attack. Cobalt banquettes with soft pillows, modern light fixtures, and wall tiles like white enamel give the room charm. Most nights, windows to the patio are open, and diners at the 95 seats don’t seem to mind the whirring cars or winter chill.
Starters show originality and audacity. They have the same style as the space.
A few swing for the fences and miss. Squash blossoms get a heavy fry, a honey drizzle, and sesame seeds. The treatment tramples the delicacy of the flowers, recalling a sticky-sweet fried item from a Chinese-American chain. Similarly, pizza needs work. Dough gets a 24-hour rise. Waifish pies emerge from wood ovens, coiling steam and the scent of Bianco di Napoli tomatoes, but they greet you like salt cannons. The crust, too, has an irreverent springiness. Eating four slices is a marathon for the jaw.
Other than a surprisingly vanilla wine menu — which omits places of origin — it’s all up from here.
Charred carrots will provoke responses of love or hate. This is a wild, brutalistic dish of spindly carrots cauterized, blackened, subjected to so much heat that they look warped and dipped in ink. The tops are still on; they still have grist from being in the ground; and the char is so armored that salsa verde and mascarpone can’t cut through. But they are enjoyable in a primal way, the kind of dish that reminds you your food comes from a world of life and death and elements.
Panzanella features mizuna, made beautiful by just enough truffle. A Caesar has zero creamy heft, all saline anchovy goodness. Folds of prosciutto drag as you tooth into the soft, fig-topped bread of one bruschetta; juicy cherry tomatoes accent the overflowing whey spirit of the burrata of another.
Octopus is grilled nicely. The Manila clams and plump mussels heaped in tomato broth with clots of sausage in its depths seem too big for their shells, the meat fragrant, jiggling, cooked deftly just to the threshold of doneness.
The best starter is more traditional: arancini. Fried rice orbs like brown tennis balls come submerged in bubbling tomato sauce laced with heat. The gentle undertow of spice enlivens the tomato, balances the oil of the crust, and jibes nicely with the core of rice and molten Caciocavallo cheese.
If I were to eat at Parma five times, I would order starters and pasta all five. Entrees just aren’t as enjoyable. A New York strip, cooked past the requested medium, could have been seasoned more aggressively. Though broccoli dripping with a sweet-sour pinot gris reduction was addictive, polenta served in a saucer (and not under the steak!) was oddly uniform, a smooth density that lacked the memory of individual corn bits. Chicken Parm was chicken Parm. It feels like these mains were selected for ideas about a north Scottsdale crowd, rather than to fit the restaurant’s paradigm.
We arrive to the main act of this tale: pasta. You can count the number of restaurants in the Valley doing great pasta on two hands (or fewer). On those hands, Parma Italian Roots gets a finger.
Gentile and Coronado use a mechanical extruder for all pastas, minus gnocchi. Their gnocchi falls in the center of the spectrum from cloudlike to gummy. Gnocchi here won’t cocoon you in pure joy, like great gnocchi should. But other pastas may.
A barely modern pasta with pesto fills a deep bowl. Mint-green paste clings to campanelle’s ruffles and slopes. The sauce has some natural creaminess and a trace of brightness from use of lemon. You can tell that the pasta has been tossed really well with the sauce, likely over heat, as pesto clings to flower-shaped noodles like a coat of hot glue. The whole matrix of al dente transforms in the universe of fresh pastas. This freshly extruded campanelle has the right union of slight softness and chew. Salt permeates to the interior. It is very good pasta.
Pasta, like a wine-buzzed dinner companion, may speak about many things. The two most bipolar, most intriguing pastas at Parma speak loudly, spilling on the foibles and fortes of the restaurant.
First is a butternut squash agnolotti, a descendant of Emilia-Romagna’s tortellone di zucca (the signature of the ancestor being crushed amaretti cookies). Here, Gentile and Coronado paint an abstract picture in wheat and cheese. Squash puree and a thin broth pool under noodles enrobing sweet squash filling. On top are drifts of currants, peaks of ricotta. Sage, brown butter, and smoked almonds also enter the palette, confusing the picture. The pasta is decent, and could be improved if simplified.
Second is a Bolognese, called ragú in Emilia-Romagna, where ragú was born. Gentile’s Bolognese isn’t as modern as his agnolotti, though it has modern elements. Rather than all ground, the meat is sausage and chunks of short rib. A blush, vodka-sauce-like hint leavens the normally rich sauce unexpectedly and nicely. You can taste an echo of wine, as well as a dusky whisper of nutmeg (both being traditional). Wide pappardelle ribbons are luxurious, especially when they dangle back on themselves, but they aren’t pure satin and carry the homey rusticity of pasta fatto a mano, pasta made by hand.
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Though a Parma resident may have beef with the meat and the mild blush bent, they result in a worthy pasta — easily one of the more memorable in town. Gentile and Coronado thrive when they build on tradition, but with small steps, and respectfully. If they can hew to this standard, forget about what they think Scottsdale wants, and better edit for simplicity, this could be a top-tier restaurant.
Parma Italian Roots
20831 North Scottsdale Road, #117, Scottsdale
Hours: Monday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Truffled panzanella $9
Burrata bruschetta $9
Mussels and clams $17
Pappardelle Bolognese $25
*Note: Parma offers a great happy hour. Among the many discounts is half-off pizzas. Happy hour runs daily from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m., but may change soon.