As you enter Parella through the bright red doors just inside the main entrance to Calhoun Square, the faint whisper of wood smoke tickles your nose and calls your taste buds to attention. That familiar aroma comes from the wood-fired oven in the kitchen, built decades ago when the space was Figlio.
And while the lively Uptown vibe will bring back fond memories for those who frequented that spot, Parella is definitely of the moment, with a menu featuring rustic Italian fare, heavy on fish and seafood. Chef Todd MacDonald’s plates are influenced by what is seasonal and available locally, and lends itself to a relaxed evening spent savoring and sharing a variety of dishes with friends.
The dark wood and dim lighting from the spot's last two incarnations, Il Gato and Primebar, are gone, and the restaurant is more open and inviting. The bar area occupies roughly half the space and is anchored by hulking columns, original to the building, that have been stripped and left bare, revealing concrete – and a bit of history. One of the columns features a fragment of pink, orange, and purple paisley wallpaper that, rumor has it, dates from the building’s time as a Snyder Drug Store.
For maximum people-watching potential, seek out the two booths in the bar. One butts right up to the bar, a great spot if you like to see the bartenders in action. The other, called the crow’s nest, is a bit to the side of the bar, but up a few steps, so you have a great view of everything going on, as well as plenty of privacy.
If you start with the cocktail menu — and why wouldn't you? — you'll find many variations on the classic Negroni along with updated twists on other favorites. The Parella Gibson, featuring pickled ramp onion juice and vodka, tasted overpoweringly of garlic. The Lake Street Gimlet, on the other hand, had a pleasant citrusy pop. The beer selection highlights a number of local brews, while the wine list is an all-Italian affair, with a number of selections available by the glass. This is your chance to try wines that don't turn up at your local liquor store, like the fruity and smooth Inama Soave Classico or the ruby red Terradora Aglianico, with a hint of spice. The Lambrusco flight was a perfect choice for a sultry summer evening. There’s also a selection of amaros, a bittersweet Italian aperitif that is the current darling of mixologists.
While the bar is punctuated with pops of red and large windows that accentuate the mostly white room, the dining room, in the back of the space, feels more intimate, with plenty of comfortable booths upholstered in brown leather and flickering candles on ledges of the wainscoting. You can watch the action in the open kitchen from every table.
Crudo, the Italian preparation of raw fish sweeping the Twin Cities right now, is a centerpiece of the menu, so don’t miss it. The fluke crudo is arranged on the plate like the petals of a delicate flower, bathed in a basil citrus marinade and sprinkled with little gems of citrus. The salmon crudo is precisely diced cubes of glistening fish, stacked atop smashed peas in a perfect cylinder.
The mussels may just become a signature dish – as soon as you see them on someone else’s table you want to order them. They come served on a cast iron plancha so hot that you can feel the heat radiating from it. The pan is placed on its own little tower, with a bowl for shells underneath. There is a ramekin of Meyer lemon and young garlic butter for dipping. It is simple and satisfying.
Of course there is pasta. The whole wheat pasta with anchovies, parsley pesto, and garlic crumbs tasted as bright as it looked. The anchovies added a briny tang to the pesto, which was a verdant green and studded with slivers of garlic. The mushroom pappardelle was a more demure dish, a mound of wild mushrooms bathed in a silky broth, nestled with sorrel and dusted with Parmesan. All pastas are offered in two portion sizes, a welcome option for those trying to show some restraint.
Main courses take advantage of the wood-burning grill with entrees like whole wood grilled branzino with arugula spaetzle and dried porcini mostarda and wood roasted suckling pig.
With small plates ranging from $9 to $18 and pastas starting at $10 for a half order and $16 for a full order, a group can easily sample a half dozen dishes and still splurge on one of the specialty cocktails. Entrees run from $24 to $34 (for that suckling pig). Parella is now open for lunch, dinner, and late-night dining. And while the wood-fired oven lingers, this incarnation of the space may finally put the ghost of Figlio to rest.
3001 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis