In a move that surprises no one who knows him, chef Claudio Urciuoli has left Pa’La and Pa’La Downtown, the Italian-influenced, seafood-centric restaurants in which he partnered with Omar Alvarez of Tortas Paquime. As you may recall, the two opened the first Pa’La on 24th Street in late 2017, followed by a larger, full-service Pa’La Downtown — where the kitchen was (and is) helmed by Jason Alford – in 2021.
He has amicably parted ways with Alvarez to begin a new venture/adventure with Akshat Sethi, a friend who shares his sensibilities about simplicity, sustainability and careful sourcing. Sethi founded the restaurant chain Thai Chili 2 Go. Together, the two plan to open Source — a quick-service, Mediterranean-inflected concept which is slated to open in Epicenter at Agritopia this November.
As for why he’s left the two Pa’Las, Urciuoli simply says, “I don’t want to do fine dining. I want to try something smaller,” which he explains means a smaller, simpler operation with fewer employees, given the impossibility of finding people to work. “I want to stay at the counter,” he adds, and “change the menu when I want.” This is the Claudio Urciuoli we know and love.
To be honest, the two-story Downtown location of Pa’La — louder, trendier, busier — seemed vastly different from anything Urciuoli had done before. Even his stints at high-end Prado at the Omni Scottsdale Resort & Spa, at Eliot Wexler’s Noca, and at the defunct Taggia at Firesky weren’t quite this chaotic.
The original Pa’La, a charming bare bones space where Urciuoli fired up pizzas and wood-fired sandwiches, made tiny tapas of boquerones, and anointed veggies and grain-filled bowls with premium olive oil sourced from his pals in Italy, seemed absolutely aligned with who this talented, integrity-driven guy really is — a chef with deep roots in Italy, a father who sold flour and uncles who owned flour mills and bakeries. You could say that bread is engrained in his very being. Well, that and simplicity.
Urciuoli also points out that since Pa’La has stopped serving lunch and quit turning out pizza (it was decidedly up-and-down, which I attributed to Urciuoli’s absence), Alford is now available to run the original Pa’La during the day.
In any case, Urciuoli is moving forward and expresses his delight at Source’s somewhat bucolic location, saying, “It’s a good feeling. People live there, and they can walk to the restaurant.” Naturally, it follows a similar template to the original Pa’La (which was, itself, based on Noble Eatery’s straightforward, chalkboard style).
However, Urciuoli explains, there is always an evolution, and while he and his new chef Trevor Routman (former sous chef at Lula Café in Chicago) will continue to offer sandwiches, pizzas, seafood, veggies and grain bowls, Source will be more like an Italian enoteca, a casual place to drop in for a glass of wine (served in small, sturdy, European-style glasses) and a snack.
There will be a small market selling pastas, olive oils, wine and other premium ingredients Urciuoli has sourced from longtime purveyors and friends in Italy as well as fresh-baked breads made with heirloom grains such as spelt, kamut and Emmer wheat. The bread? That’s Urciuoli’s wheelhouse.
This go-round, Urciuoli is working with a Swedish oven (not a wood-burning model), which he says is great for bread. His pizzas will, therefore, not be in the soft Neapolitan-style, nor will they always be round. He will often make the square, crunchy-bottomed pies of Rome, which are lighter in color — but no less delicious, I’m pretty sure.
This seems like the logical next step for Urciuoli, a guy famous for keeping it real.