Photography by Caitlin Abrams
Whole wheat spaghetti at Parella.
Like any sensible modern person wary of chia seeds lurking in the pudding, beets staining the Negronis, and zucchini cruelly impersonating tartare, when I first saw the whole wheat spaghetti on the menu at Uptown’s new Parella, I politely looked away, instead fixing my gaze on matters less likely to embarrass us all. I mean, meats and cheeses, even in the worst hands, do not tend to embarrass us. Gorgonzola on a plate, for one, tends toward success, even when you consider that most of the time it’s served too cold, often in a state of gummy decay because no one noticed it had become old and less than fresh. But still, the near presence of whole wheat spaghetti does make one scamper for the nearest safe harbor.
Upon ordering the Gorgonzola, I began to suspect there was something special going on at Parella. The cheese was served in perfect condition, at a temperature just a few degrees cooler than the room itself, cut so freshly and recently that every little pocket of mold was as perfectly preserved as the glittering core of a geode. The burrata beside it was presented with equal sensitivity, a little model of cheese skating the razor wire where butter, milk, and cheese make their alchemical change. It wasn’t even ruined by a balsamic reduction and handful of chopped tomatoes, as is typically the fashion!
I hate to compare new restaurants to what other places are doing, but I couldn’t help it at Parella, mainly because so often there I felt like exclaiming, “Well, this is the right way! They’re doing it the right way!” Contrariwise, Italian food in Minnesota is often disinterested in its humble origins and wants instead to ascend to the grand status of a parade float, hiding itself under a thousand paper roses’ worth of melted cheese and a few beauty queens’ weight in balsamic vinegar reduction. Not so at Parella. The meats on the meat and cheese board were presented with impressive care. The Red Table coppa arrived tissue-thin and sweet (it dries out and oxidizes if cut too far in advance). The mortadella was appropriately a few micrometers thicker than the coppa and fresh as fruit. I tried the meats with Parella’s unusual Lambrusco wine flight: a white, a red, and a pink, all from the same small producer in the Emilia-Romagna region. We don’t see white Lambrusco much in this country. Thus, drinking it at Parella was like going on a little Italian vacation to taste it and its sensually and intellectually interesting sisters the way they’re supposed to be enjoyed: with a little spice and weight to cut the fruit of the wine, a little fat to fight the acid. It was a heavenly little moment at the table.
The plain green salad was even better. It’s hard to rave about a green salad, but I will commence: Hubba, hubba! This one’s called “Misticanza of 20 Greens and Herbs” and comprises all sorts of interesting, soft, sweet lettuces and bitter chicories, as well as dill, mint, basil, and fennel—all united with fresh lemon and oil; sweet, nutty-good pistachios; and dustings of smoked Sardinian grated cheese. Each bite was so fresh, so new. One forkful might have mint and chicory, another basil, butter lettuce, and chewy pistachio. Yet it’s clearly a fresh green salad, sticking close to its mission to be, you know, fresh and green. The panzanella with charred avocado and heirloom tomatoes might have been even better, the avocado lending welcome silk to a dish that was mostly a celebration of perfectly seasoned tomatoes.
That’s when I decided that maybe the whole wheat spaghetti could be looked at with non-averted eyes. I’m glad I did because it’s incredible. The spaghetti itself is the nutty base to which clings a thin but intensely flavored veil of anchovies, lemon, and garlic with a bit of parsley pesto. The whole dish is covered with a scant snowfall of breadcrumbs and chili peppers, and every bite see-sawed between rustic and profound. It’s a must-try for any lover of Italian food in Minnesota and made me see that chef Todd Macdonald’s real gift is cooking Italian like he’s sending something beautiful and strong down the street in a swimsuit, unafraid and with nothing to hide. The scallop crudo is another perfect example. Dressed simply with Meyer lemon juice, olive oil, salt, crushed espelette pepper, and a handful of microgreens, the scallops emerge from their bath tingling with life, still detectably sea-scented.
Macdonald grew up in Minneapolis, but has spent most of his cooking career in New York City, where he worked for David Bouley at Bouley and Shea Gallante at the Italian-leaning Cru. He returned to Minnesota to open his own spot. His wife Mary Macdonald is responsible for the thoughtful all-Italian wine list. The principal owner of the restaurant, which is located in the old Figlio space in Calhoun Square, is Michael Larson, former VP for Parasole Restaurant Holdings and operator of Figlio’s now-shuttered St. Louis Park iteration. (Larson is married to Stephanie March, food and dining editor at this magazine. She was not involved with any part of this review.) The original Figlio space is recognizable to anyone who knew it well, though now it’s mainly white and light, modern and simple.
Given the frequency with which the restaurant is open—for daily lunch, happy hour, dinner, late night, Saturday lunch, Sunday brunch—there were bound to be some menu missteps here and there. The pizza, for one, doesn’t hold up to the Figlio legend, the crust too insipid and vague. The bread, of all things, needs drastic improvement. The brick-pressed half chicken was not much more than plain, and the polenta-crusted skate wing was likewise dull and under-seasoned. Other entrées, though, were a delight. The suckling pig has skin that cracks and crackles like a candy apple coating and meat like custard. The accompanying bitter dandelion greens clear the palate after every bite, and the black lentils provide an earthy ground. Overall, the dish is a sensual journey. And if you get a chance, try the lemon ricotta pancakes at brunch, topped with a melting scoop of mascarpone cheese that makes them, I suppose, Italian. They were as good as pancakes get, airy and buoyant, a little savory, a little roasty and sweet.
Service at Parella in its opening weeks was peculiar. Servers were obsessed with removing dirty silver and plates, but it was common to receive hot food and let it go cold while none of the waitstaff noticed the lack of clean utensils. There was an adjacent problem where a table’s main server would disappear for extended periods, and people who had never visited the table before would suddenly appear to interrupt our conversation for no evident reason.
That brings us to the desserts, designed by Khanh Tran, arguably the Twin Cities’ most award-winning pastry chef. They’re some of the best I’ve had this year. The pistachio cake with roast nectarine and crème fraîche is masterful at wrapping up all the points of sour, salty, sweet, umami, and fresh that a dessert can bear; it’s sure to become a local legend. The affogato is another magical thing: a coupe glass of vanilla gelato covered with malted hot fudge and crowned with a fresh pizzelle. You pour espresso over it at the table and it feels essentially Italian: devourable, simple, unfussy.
“I love those essential Italian things that maintain their original identity,” Macdonald told me when I spoke to him by phone for this story. “When I worked at Cru, I was doing spherification and liquid nitrogen and all of that, but at the end of the day, I want something simple. For me, the trend is heading back to more simple, less manipulated food. A lot of the Italian mentality is less is more.”
Less is more is something that’s easy to say, but hard to pull off, because the less you have, the more it must stand on its own merits. Believing in less takes guts, but when executed well it builds trust—and might even convince you to order whole wheat spaghetti.
3001 Hennepin Ave. S., #1200, Mpls., 612-353-5444, parellampls.com