Just a man, his wood-fired grill and some really good fish.
French chef and food writer Auguste Escoffier famously said, “The greatest dishes are very simple.” It’s an axiom that Claudio Urciuoli, chef and co-owner of Pa’La in Central Phoenix, understands in his bones.
In fact, the famously footloose chef has never cooked any other way. From a bevy of resort jobs to indies such as Chris Bianco’s late Italian Restaurant, Eliot Wexler’s departed Noca and Jason Raducha’s Noble Eatery, Urciuoli always keeps it simple – and usually damn good.
Expect more of the same at his latest venture. Launched in partnership with Tortas Paquime owner Omar Alvarez, the eatery borrows a page from Urciuoli’s former offerings at Noble – small snack plates, a salad or two, wholesome grain bowls and exquisite wood-fired flatbread – but predicated upon Spanish tapas, Mediterranean fare and South American-influenced seafood bites.
Everything about the operation, housed in a converted 1920s-era bungalow, is low-key and unfussy. Orders from a handwritten chalkboard menu are taken at the counter; dishes arrive on paper plates with plastic utensils. But the downscale approach is deceiving, given that Urciuoli has always been one of this town’s greatest sourcers, buying the best of the best, cost be damned.
Sublime tapas are proof of his ingredient-driven approach. You can’t go wrong with
buttery, faintly tangy slices of Spanish Mahón cheese, offered up with small chunks of dense, chewy, sausage-like salametto or fatty, peppery shaves of salami; or a bowl of sweet, meaty Lucques olives from France paired with chile-dusted Marcona almonds, which makes me instinctively reach for a glass of Tempranillo. At lunch, Urciuoli offers a small but impressive burrito, wrapped in a homemade Benny Blanco tortilla (made in Mesa with locally grown wheat) and stuffed with guacamole and fish, often halibut or swordfish from Chula Seafood. Most days, he also makes soup – maybe creamy cannellini beans and farro, the bowl fragrant with garlic and oregano.
Schiacciata (flatbread), made with local heritage grains, emerges from the chef’s impressive wood-burning oven charred, puffy and wonderfully chewy, a sturdy vehicle for toppings of mozzarella, arugula, pickled peppers and American prosciutto from La Quercia. Urciuoli also mates the schiacciata with buffalo burrata from Caserta, Italy, which is softer, creamier, tangier and altogether better than standard cow’s milk mozzarella. It arrives glistening with olive oil and dappled with oregano, sitting on a bed of olive oil-anointed greens – a bargain at $20 for two.
Urciuoli invites us to eat the way he eats – simply and healthfully. Nowhere is that more evident than the nutritious Navarro bowl, named for a Chilean big wave surfer. By turns smooth, chewy, nutty, savory and sweet, it’s a flavor-packed textural playhouse of heritage grains (einkorn, kamut and spelt, to name three), beans, seeds and roasted seasonal veggies, lightly dressed with olive oil and a dash of gourmet, umami-packed WuWanWo soy sauce. The kicker is an ever-changing seafood topper, maybe incredibly flavorful wild shrimp from Louisiana or sweet scallops from Nantucket Bay, everything so good that you’ll forget you’re eating from a throwaway bowl.
The frills and swishes of modern American dining don’t matter a whit when you taste the elemental power of Urciuoli’s simple but strangely elegant food. He’s a slippery fish, alright. But we’ll follow him into any ocean.
Cuisine: Global Tapas/Small Plates
Contact: 2107 N. 24th St., Phoenix, 602-795-9500, palakitchen.com
Hours: Lunch M-F 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; dinner Th-Sa 5:30-9 p.m.
Highlights: Meat and cheese tapas (selections vary, $7); schiacciata with various toppings ($11); buffalo mozzarella salad ($20 for two); Navarro bowl ($16)