Good things come in small packages, or so the saying goes. I like to think that means good food comes from tiny restaurants. This is due, in no small part, to the fact that there isn’t a plethora of fantastic farmers around here. Don’t get me wrong – there are amazing people coaxing gorgeous vegetables out of the scorched earth we call home. It’s hard work, though, crafting perfection from impeccably sourced goods. Claudio Urciuoli is the kind of chef that makes it look easy.
Known from his stints at Taggia, NOCA (come back, Elliot) and Noble Bread, just to name a few, Claudio is a kind of kicked-back perfectionist with an eye toward organic and sustainable food. Pa’La is his newest venture, and it’s a sleek, modern, tasty adventure.
In a charming and cheerful restored bungalow, you’ll find Urciuoli’s new spot. It’s gorgeously landscaped with a smattering of what looks to be growing foodstuffs, including a charming grape vine that is already producing gorgeous, tiny wine grapes, all of which merely hints at what is inside. The interior has room for about 20 people, and a large, sunny patio has additional seating. Full attention is drawn toward the toasty, tiled wood-fired oven where the magic happens. Pa’La is ostensibly a seafood and tapas restaurant, but it feels like so much more.
The charming chalkboard lists the handful of items currently available. Today, Pa’La is only open for lunch, which makes eating here feel like an accomplishment, especially since it isn’t open on weekends, and dinner is still a little ways off. Every bit of foodstuff served here has an eye toward sustainable sourcing.
The bowls, named after famed Chilean surfer and environmental activist Ramon Navarro ($16), who is featured in a documentary Claudio recommends called The Fisherman’s Son, come loaded with a warm, nutty grain mix of kamut, spelt and three wheats – sonora, einkor and durum – plus roasted peppers, golden beets and a choice of hand-harpooned swordfish or mahi mahi. It’s nourishing, warming, tasty and seems, quite frankly, virtuous. It simply FEELS good eating this.
I also loved the Schiacciata ($11), a freshly baked pita-esque bread, topped with apple, ham, fresh herbs and mozzarella. The hot-out-of-the-wood-fired-oven taste lends an earthly, crunchy appeal to the dish. I’d expect this, and everything else on the menu, to change with the seasons, and I can’t wait. This mozzarella was so fresh and milky, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn it was pulled that day. Swirls of green olive oil finish it off, perfect for swiping up with torn bread.
Honestly, the first time I ever tried burrata was from Chef Claudio, so I was happy to see it under Tapas ($7). Fresh morsels of creamy heaven dot delicious mini-schiacciata, with more of the silky Le Ferre extra virgin olive oil. To be frank, when a chef like Claudio calls out the oil, pay attention. This is the good stuff – peppery, with a kick, and a slight hit at the back of your throat to remind you there are legit polyphenols here (that’s what gives premium and fresh olive oils that bite in the back of the throat). I’d order several – this portion can be shared, but I never want to.
New Bedford scallops are cut and swirled into grapefruit pieces in a perfect Ceviche ($8). So deliciously balanced and flavorful, this ceviche will melt in your mouth. It misses the funky sting of lesser ceviche (which is a good thing) and instead dissolves into nothing short of bliss – at least for me. This is what true skill and the best ingredients when merged together are capable of producing. The portion looks a bit small, I’ll be honest, but this quality of scallop, ethically sourced, isn’t found every day. You will savor it. Each bite, one piece at a time, which is the trick, really, for Claudio’s food. To me, his take forces you to slow down and savor each bit and bite.
While you’re doing that, you might notice something about the cutlery and dishes, which are all biodegradable. You’ll find natural materials meant to break down. And he’s the first chef that I recall having a compost option next to the trash, ensuring that nothing goes to waste and nothing will stay in a landfill for the next century.
Don’t skip the Almonds and Olives ($3), a kicky mix of spicy marcona almonds and picholine olives, warm and fantastic and just salty enough to keep you going back for more.
And, of course, there is dessert – a crispy, nutty circle of farro hazelnut cookies with deliciously bitter grapefruit jam. I can’t recall the last grain-based cookie I had that wasn’t wheat or oats, and I’ll be coming back for more. There’s something quite wholesome about them. I can envision this, consumed with an impossibly small cup of perfect espresso before escaping on a Vespa, like in a Fellini film.
Expect the menu to change with the seasons, and with the harvest. Which sounds like heaven to me. It’s almost like a new restaurant every couple of months. The same is true for the fish. Chef Claudio will serve what is fresh, sustainable and ethically sourced. And you might consider their small selection of perfect olive oils and balsamic vinegars for sale near the counter.
Attention to detail and handmade quality aren’t things that can be mass produced. And Claudio isn’t trying, which is why I have always found his food to be so interesting and engaging. Each small plate is a flavorful world unto itself, and lasts only as long as it takes to consume. It’s a reminder of the transitory nature of things, and a reminder that this kind of attention to detail and focus is an artform we don’t see much any longer, and also a reminder that good things come on small plates.
2107 N. 24th Street, Phoenix
Monday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.