As you walk the wintry intersection of Lake and Hennepin on the way to Scena, Uptown’s newish Italian/crudo restaurant, you pass by what used to be Parella. Sadly darkened bottles stand stagnant behind the bar with no life to lift them.
A year ago, it was a hopeful and boisterous place, the joint dream of chef Todd Macdonald and longtime restaurateur Michael Larson. It was to be a regional Italian restaurant featuring crudo, Italy's answer to sushi — raw fish garnished with daubs of sauces. Suddenly, about a half-dozen restaurants with the same concept were opening at roughly the same time. One of them would be across the street.
The soaring space inside Scena is circular. The bar area curves like a merry-go-round, with ample space to sit on big, buttery leather stools. Bartenders mill about, at the ready to pour affordably priced glasses of wine and craft cocktails. A staircase leads to an airy second floor, and the entire room offers sight lines to the open kitchen. The vibe is that of a big, jovial party.
The cooking at Parella was precise and exacting. Macdonald grew up with wealthy parents and the family traveled around Italy extensively. Those trips impressed upon him the subtle nuances of regional Italian cooking, a fact that may have worked against him in the end. The food was minimalist, the way things are done in Italy, staunchly following the seasons and letting pristine ingredients drive the boat. While Parella wasn't exactly a fine dining place, the precise cooking demanded a certain level of service. Service they were ultimately unable to deliver.
At Scena, the menu offers dozens of ways to snack. There's crudo and pasta, yes, but also little pizzas, small plates, and cheeses. The entrees almost seem like an afterthought, but there are meatballs and a big steak meant to be shared. It all seems to scream, “Order a bunch of stuff! Scatter it around the table! Get good and tipsy! Have fun!”
There is a tide change in fine dining nationwide. A greater swath of the American public is interested in eating out and eating well. And they’re savvy about it. They want good food, but they also want it in a comfortable environment. And they want it to be affordable.
When Parasole closed casual Italian drink emporium Figlio in 2009, they replaced it with higher-end Italian Il Gatto, and it died after barely two years. When Macdonald and Larson opened Parella in that space last year, they had a chance to revive the spirit of Figlio, that lost, beloved Uptown anchor. A few days before they closed, Larson tried to morph the bar into a more jovial and approachable place, serving hot dagos, pizzas, and huge meatballs. It was too little, too late.
Of the handful of Italian/crudo places still open in the Twin Cities, Scena may have the best chance of making it. They’ve even wisely turned their crudo into a party, where 100 bucks gets you 10 courses plus cocktail pairings from the always entertaining Bittercube mixology team. It’s limited to eight spots per seating, and it’s like a private audience with the chef, who can help strip away the mysteries of this esoteric trend.
Probably no place will ever recapture the classic approachability that was Figlio. But Scena at least got the memo. This is a neighborhood brimming with millennials who have pocketbooks fat enough for sleek condos and livers fresh enough to drink nightly. And here, the cooking isn’t a sacred cow, but a loose, Midwestern-friendly variety that fortifies.
2943 Girard Ave. S., Minneapolis