Parma Italian Roots

Nikki BuchananFebruary 2019
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This promising Italian concept in Scottsdale is rounding its first turn without the services of its founding chef – and the quality has stumbled in kind.

Phoenix’s restaurant graveyard is littered with the corpses of big-city brands whose carpetbagger chefs must have sized up our local food scene and envisioned easy pickings. They came, they saw, they did not conquer. Jose Garces of Distrito and Brian Malarkey of dead-and-gone Searsucker are two famous casualties.

So, it’s interesting that executive chef Chris Gentile – well-known in San Diego, unknown here – seems to have cracked the code with a breezy, West Coast-inspired and Italian-inflected concept nearly identical to its sibling restaurant in San Diego. In SoCal, it’s called Double Standard Kitchenetta; here, Parma Italian Roots. And it’s always packed, in a way that Searsucker, for example, never was – perhaps because Parma’s food is more mainstream and less expensive.

Frankly, I have mixed feelings. After two early visits in the fall, I was enamored, even naming it one of the best new restaurants of 2018. But three months and two additional visits later? Not so much. Apparently, Gentile has returned to San Diego, leaving Rael Coronado (Double Standard’s former sous) in his stead, which could explain why the place feels rudderless and off-course to me.

Despite all the hype about Italian roots and Cali-coastal cuisine, the menu is primarily composed of crowd-pleasing standards found in restaurants all over town – bruschetta, Caesar salad, chicken Parm. Still, there are standouts: a piping-hot loaf of crusty, sea salt-sprinkled bread served with black truffle whipped butter; salty-sweet Brussels sprouts so crunchy and habit-forming they barely count as a vegetable; the pure comfort of roasted mushroom toast enhanced with sherry, truffle oil and crème fraîche.

Wood-fired Neapolitan pizza may not be of Pomo’s perfect, leopard-spotted caliber, but its thin, pliant crust and interesting toppings are pleasing just the same – especially the garlic- and rosemary-laced white pie and the honey-drizzled Diavola, topped with spicy soppressata. House-made pastas are hit-or-miss. The best among them is pappardelle smothered in meaty Bolognese, rich with braised short ribs and Italian sausage (glorious on one occasion, stingy on sauce the second time around). Sweet butternut squash-filled agnolotti, slicked with brown butter and aromatic with sage, is decent enough, but I’ve had better, which is also true for Parma’s faintly gummy, leaden gnocchi.

In fact, “better elsewhere” describes almost everything I’ve eaten in recent visits, including dry short ribs (kind of a rip-off at $33); thickly breaded, dry-at-the-center arancini; grilled but mushy-textured Spanish octopus topped with watery, tasteless fennel; and grilled, blackened carrots utterly devoid of their characteristic sweetness.

Not sure what happened here, but the bloom is definitely off the rose. Admittedly, plenty of people think Parma is great as is, which suggests that Gentile understands this easy-to-please market better than most.

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