For me, the old cliché about the mythological firebird rising from the ashes rings strangely true when it comes to some of the more distinctive neighborhood spots. We preserve our old buildings — and with them, our history — by repurposing them while still paying tribute to their original character.
Just think of all the restaurants tucked away in historic buildings. It's really quite a phenomenon, something out-of-towners always remark upon in an envious way. There's The Roosevelt, a tavern whose name was inspired by the man who was in the Oval Office at the time the historic house was built. Postino brought wine bar ambiance to a onetime post office, and Bomberos did the same for a former firehouse.
And now, following in that same tradition, there's The Parlor, a vibrant new pizza parlor in an old mid-century beauty parlor, on Camelback near 20th Street.
It's a fitting concept from father-and-son owners Dan and Aric Mei, who combine a pizza pedigree (they also own Nello's in Ahwatukee, and Dan and his brothers opened the original Tempe Nello's in 1983) with a great design aesthetic (Aric, an artist, played a significant role in the eco-friendly building renovation and interior décor). Executive chef Jerry Alday and operating chef Jared Porter devised a rustic, casual menu of pizza, pasta, sandwiches, and salads.
Stop by any night of the week, and it's obvious that word's already out about this place. Open since Memorial Day weekend, The Parlor has quickly become this summer's talk of the town, a good-looking, reasonably priced hangout that's somehow hit an enviable sweet spot in spite of this floundering economy; most items are around 10 bucks. You can expect a bit of a wait.
But at least there's plenty to look at. Outside the entrance, they've grown a lush garden in a raised wooden planter (where they get herbs for the basil gimlet and black velvet sage martini, among other things). An outdoor fireplace with built-in bench seating divides the waiting area from the patio dining space, and there's a cozy bar area inside.
It took the Meis a year to completely gut and transform the 53-year-old building that used to house Salon de Venus, and the result is impressive — sleek but quirky, with concrete floors, thick wooden ceiling beams, and such retro-modern accents as antique salon chairs and subway tile. There's a big wood-burning oven in the broad, open kitchen, and the entire front of the restaurant is an expanse of glass, revealing the starburst-pattern cinderblock of the original building façade. Very cool.
So first thing's first: How was the pizza?
I'll admit, my first encounter with it a couple of months ago was just so-so, but I'd heard through the grapevine that they were still tweaking the crust. On more recent visits, the pizza was much, much improved — completely different from round one — and my dining companions and I thought it was easily as good as the wood-fired pies they serve at Humble Pie or Cibo. The crust was thin, lightly charred on the bottom, with crisp, bubbly edges that gave way to a doughy middle.
There was a list of toppings for build-your-own pizzas, although nine different signature pizzas offered plenty of variety. Ripe, yellow heirloom tomatoes made for a standout margherita, while thinly sliced Pavone pepperoni, fresh basil, and housemade mozzarella amounted to a really flavorful pepperoni pizza.
Roasted Yukon potatoes, Gorgonzola, pancetta, and leeks were an interesting combination, but even better was the Salsiccia, a sausage pizza with a creative spin. It was covered in a ton of "Parlor blend" meat from Schreiner's and a thin layer of sweet tomato sauce, with fresh sage, grilled radicchio, and a drizzle of sweet saba.
Antipasti were less consistent. Arancini (crisp, cheese-filled risotto balls resting in a pool of tomato sauce) were easy to love, while mozzarella-stuffed, grilled eggplant cannelloni, teemed with the same tomato sauce, seemed lackluster in comparison. It wasn't the flavor, but the chewy, almost rubbery texture of the eggplant that turned me off. Fried calamari and rock shrimp, served with zingy romesco sauce, were average. And caponata bruschetta, while novel, was too syrupy and sweet — I could hardly taste the layer of herbed ricotta.
No complaints about the salads at The Parlor, though. Roasted chicken paired well with Gorgonzola, pears, and spiced pecans on the farm greens salad, and fennel, avocado, and gastrique onions added interest to a roasted beet and goat cheese salad. Meanwhile, the Parlor Insalata was a pretty straight-up Italian chopped salad, with pepperoni, green olives, cucumber, tomato, feta, crunchy chickpeas, and lettuce tossed in oregano dressing.
The Parlor's burger was one of the tastiest I've had lately, super-juicy and served on a fresh, golden bun, with caramelized onions and provolone on top and a pile of crispy fries on the side. Duck breast, applewood-smoked bacon, and red wine tomato jam were a novel take on a club sandwich, and the "grinder" was a delicious variation on the traditional Italian deli meat sandwich, with sweet pickled vegetables and a slick of aioli on a toasted roll.
There were a handful of homemade pastas as well. Tender tagliatelle ribbons tossed with salty speck and radicchio were mouthwatering in a velvety pecorino cream sauce, and the seasonal risotto dish, topped with sweet corn and tomatoes, was wonderfully aromatic, thanks to truffle oil and basil pesto.
On the other hand, thick pappardelle in a super-meaty bolognese sauce was inedibly Chef Boyardee — the ground beef was overcooked, dry in spite of the tomato sauce, and studded with dessicated bits of sausage. Sadly, I could eat only a few bites.
Desserts were more creative than you'd expect from a neighborhood pizza joint — pine nut brittle accented the tiramisu, thyme-raspberry sauce sweetened tangy lemon pudding, and fruit crostada, drizzled with streusel topping, had a flaky, fresh-out-of-the-oven crust. A slice of moist, not-too-sweet chocolate Bundt cake impressed me the most, perhaps because it reminded me of my mom's.
Okay, so there were a few misses that I'll chalk up to The Parlor's growing pains. There were a lot more hits, though. At the newest "quintessential Phoenix" restaurant, there's a lot to like, and probably more to come.