One begins to wonder if the curse of Figlio is real.
Back in 2009, Uptown's beloved eating and drinking anchor was gutted like a still-living fish for no very good reason at all. Sure, it needed an update after 25 years in business. But as with outdated mall bangs, Figlio should have just gotten a quick trim — and instead it got hacked to bits. It was easily the worst decision Parasole Restaurant Holdings has ever made.
Il Gatto, its nouveau Italian replacement, could not take hold, even with Tim McKee and Jim Christiansen (Heyday) at the helm. A slick sports bar concept, Primebar became yet another short-lived successor. Then the space sat empty for a long time.
Enter Todd MacDonald, native Minnesotan, New York City transplant, and son of patrons of the culinary arts Bob and Sue MacDonald. If you have a restaurant, you know Bob and Sue. They take culinarians under their wings the way other people with means support the young Jeff Koons and Basquiats of the arts world. Their mission is to be benefactors of deliciousness. It's no wonder they raised a chef for a son.
And like many people of certain means, MacDonald the Younger had the great fortune of traveling the world, and getting to know it in the nuanced ways a person does when a person can.
And when he returned, MacDonald brought to the empty Uptown space a new vision: Parella. Italian in the Figlio space once more, but not just any old Italian. Not the fried calamari and cheese-filled tortellini Italian of Figlio, or even the seafood and small plates of Il Gatto. At Parella, you'll come as close as dining the way they really do in regional Italy as is possible in our town. And it will be up to you to decide if that is an experience you desire.
As diners, we travel distances, don our party boots, and crack our pocketbooks wide to be dazzled. To gaze upon a sculptural wonder of a plate, done up in swoops and quenelles and techniques we wouldn't dare at home.
But this is not what you will find at Parella. The accomplishment of chef MacDonald's cooking lies instead in its subtle quietude. In a smoked, potted eggplant that masquerades as foie gras with unthinkable levels of sumptuousness. In a "Misticanza of 20 greens and herbs" salad hiding expressions of green varietals that fire like pyrotechnics in a night sky. In masterful handmade pastas that softly reveal the secret of their skill like a shell exposing a living thing.
When asked how he approaches his kitchen, MacDonald rattles off Italian regions the way you or I might scan titles on our bookshelves. He knows them the way you know the names of your neighbors and their particular quirks and nuanced distinctions.
"In summer, it's fish heavy, like they do things in the warm weather regions of Sardinia, Sala [Consilina], and the Amalfi Coast. In fall, I'm more thinking about Parma, Bologna, Piedmont, Tuscany, and Alto Adige. As the weather gets colder things almost tend to go as far as Austria, and the way they do things in the north. Heartier, richer."
If it's hearty and rich you want (and you do, now that it's getting cold) then be Parella-bound, and fast. They're churning out some of the most impressive late autumn dishes anywhere.
The cavatelli with white bolognese is reminiscent of an Eastern European beef stroganoff, hitting all the little satisfaction bells in your brain, like a carnival high-striker tower. Elegant, slow-cooked sausage? Bing! Exquisite and dignified little dumplings coddled by hand? Bang! Creamy sauce, nuanced as liquor yet soul satisfying as butter? Zang! It's a hell of a dish that will have you looking askance at traditional tomato-based bolognese.
A can't miss: "oxtail and calamari," where nude calamari are slicked up with briny squid ink, and beside it, farro cooked like risotto in an oxtail stock that thunders with the depth of a giant walking across a room. A faint sparkle of orange gremolata adds fragrance, like waving a citrus peel over a fancy cocktail. It's surf-and-turf like you've never had it, swoon-worthy, and inspired.
Braised short ribs over soft polenta in a brasato sauce (which uses Piedmontese Barolo, a fine red wine, as its base) is nothing short of a quivering meat pudding, so tender it's barely a solid, threatening to melt onto the utensil like hot jam. Rich doesn't begin to describe the experience. Bring a friend. It's powerful.
When creating the restaurant, MacDonald says he bandied around the idea of New American, because it would offer more freedom. But in the end, Italian won out because that was his ultimate kung fu. (In New York, he trained under the sorts of chefs who have family ties to the Bastianich empire of Italian cookery).
So now, he is restrained by cooking "Italian Italian," where one just doesn't do certain things. Things like put meatballs on pasta or cook out-of-season or cut corners on any one ingredient because dishes might have only five of them, and one off-flavor will sully everything else you've worked long and hard to make.
Which brings us to the problem of Parella. I've never seen the space as full as it deserves to be. It has received its fair share of negative press, and even the most knowledgeable food people around seem mystified by it. Will its subtle (yet impeccable and superb) approach to purity and prototype underwhelm? Will the lack of pyrotechnics leave diners scratching their heads?
If I could think of only one establishment to dash off and support right away, right now, it would be this one. Losing it would be a big blow to the exponential elevation of our local culinary scene. I've eaten my way through virtually the entire menu and the only dishes that have left me cold were at brunch and dessert. Service is admittedly odd, with cocktails arriving one at a time and dishes being whisked away when you're not finished, or sitting in dirty piles long after your final bite. Entering the space often proves befuddling — there's very often no human presence at the door, so you're left to linger aimlessly in the vestibule or else wander with uncertainty into the bar area in the hopes someone will catch your eye. It needs work. A lot of work.
But I'd be willing to overlook all that for even the most straightforward dishes at Parella. MacDonald's subtlest movements trump attempts at Olympian leaps at lesser places.
Figlio is long gone and something better has finally arrived. Let's keep it that way.
Calhoun Square, 3001 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis
Menu items: $6-$29