Thursday, October 13, 2011

Italian makes a comeback in Madison Park

By Bryan Tagas

I first met the Celinda Norton, chef/proprietor of the soon-to-arrive Café Parco, when I accosted her on a Madison Park street corner earlier this summer.  Recognizing her from afar (I’d seen her photo online), I made a mad dash down the street, deftly sprinted across an intersection—not quite knocking down a couple of probable Park Shore residents in the process—and “introduced” myself.  I gave her and her entourage my very best imitation of the demanding/pleading/cajoling style that Barbara Walters does so well: I simply insisted on a pre-restaurant-opening interview.

Fortunately for me, Celinda proved to be a much more gracious person than I.  She immediately agreed to the interview, never so much as hinting that she didn’t have a clue who I was or where Madison Park Blogger might fit into the scheme of things here in the neighborhood. I simply told her the truth: there are few things (perhaps no things) that my readers would rather hear about than the opening of a new food establishment in Madison Park.  

Since she was game, we met up a couple weeks later—and over a glass of wine she provided me with the details for this backgrounder. Cafe Parco makes its debut tomorrow.

Cuisine: ‘Not Spaghetti Italian’

Although Café Parco is Celinda’s eighth restaurant, she says she’s finding the move to Madison Park to be a bit more of a transition for her than her other ventures have been.  For one thing, she’s already discovered that this is a neighborhood where everyone seems to both have an opinion and be willing to walk right in and share it.  These unsolicited (but, she says, welcomed) ideas about how the new restaurant should operate don’t necessary mesh with one another, it turns out. “There seem to be many 'food factions' at work in Madison Park!” she reports.  

What she wants to make clear from the start, however, is that Café Parco will be an Italian restaurant.  In other words, don’t expect to see the new menu trying to duplicate any of the dishes that were staples of the longtime predecessor on the site, Madison Park Café.  French cooking is definitely not what the new place is all about.  Neither are we talking “spaghetti house,” she declares.   When asked to sum up the new cuisine, she responds with the term, “New World Italian.”

That naturally raises the next question:  What typifies this style of Italian cooking?  “Well, it isn’t just pasta, for one thing.  It’s about the integrity of ingredients and not overdoing it.  You allow the ingredients to speak for themselves.”  She notes that “the breadth of Italian cuisine is amazing” and adds that she has been following the trends in Italian cooking for several years (also, this is also not her first Italian restaurant).  “The cuisine of Italy is based on tradition and quality of ingredients.” she told me.  “In recent years Italian chefs have embraced change. Not so long ago it was considered nearly a cardinal sin to change a historic recipe or presentation. Once the new trend toward creativity began to shift, it was adopted with gusto. The spirit of Italy lives on; fresh, quality ingredients, the best the season has to offer, are at the heart of every dish. Combinations may change but the integrity lives on. My menus will exemplify this. I will be working with the best items sourced locally. You will find familiar herbs and spices woven through my Italian-styled creations.”

Celinda says that while she has thousands of cookbooks, she doesn’t necessarily follow all of the instructions.  She likes to experiment and create.  One of the things she reports she’s working on right now is smoke--to be used, for example, to create smoked tomato sauce or lightly smoked cabbage.  A recent addition to her cookbook collection, Smoke and Spice, is co‐written by a woman of Italian heritage, and Celinda says she was intrigued by the author’s use of smoke in dishes from her family recipes. 

Celinda reports that her menus will always be changing.  Her intention is to keep it fresh, she says.  But what, exactly, will be on the opening menu at Café Parco?  Here are some possibilities: Crespelle, braised rabbit filled Italian crepes, maybe NW-foraged chanterelles in roasted tomato cream over crostini, a roast duck breast entrée featuring house made Cappellini tossed in duck fat with orange, Castelvetrano olives, caramelized shallot, fresh thyme and sea salt.  Her favorites on the lunch menu are the Rosemary ham on foccacia with pickled mustard seeds and confit of apricot and fennel or the simple indulgence of house-made Papparadelle tossed with smoked tomato sauce and Parmigiano. She predicts the Pasta al Forno will be a tremendous hit, describing it as a baked Italian-style “mac and cheese. 

The price point for the Café she describes as “reasonable,” placing the lunch entrees in the $12-$15 range and the dinner entrees in the $15-$25 range.

‘You will almost always find me in the kitchen’

Café Parco will very much be about Celinda Norton and her culinary vision.  “Ignore the ego,” she told me, “but I am good at what I do.” Although she says she will be wearing a variety of hats in the new establishment, the chef’s hat for her is by far the most important, “since for me, the food aspect is the most fun.”  This is one restaurant that will be “run from the kitchen,” she assures us.  Not that there is anything wrong with doing things another way, she adds, “But I will be the chef, and I really can’t imagine being dependent on someone to create the dishes and do the cooking.”

She says she’s expecting to work 16-hour days if necessary and believes her first day off will probably not arrive until sometime in January.  Even with the hard work, however, she says she enjoys the challenge:  “I love it.  It comes natural to me.”  After all, she’s been through this many times before.  She started her first restaurant in Longview in 1979.  Five successor restaurants in Longview followed that initial foray, before she moved to Seattle in 2003 to start 94 Stewart.  Her restaurants’ cuisines have included Northwest, Italian, Mediterranean, Asian fusian, and even a dabble in “South of the Border.” 

Helping her at Café Parco, in what is clearly a Norton family endeavor, are her two children, Lindsey and Nic.  Lindsey, who her mom describes as a good cook who will provide some help in the kitchen, will primarily be up front serving (“Lindsey is a phenomenal server. She has superb knowledge of food and wine. She also is quite the entertainer. A guest once told us he asked for her section, just to watch her work. He called it Lindsey Vision”).  Nic, meanwhile, will be the restaurant’s General Manager.  She describes him having great “front of house” skills, in addition to which he is both a solid techy and “remarkable” cheese steward. He can wield a hammer, too, having more than a little to do with the building’s remodeling, currently underway.  Anyone stopping by over the last few weeks has seen Nic, Lindsey and Chef Celinda all working madly to get Café Parco of the ground.

Reconfiguring the spaces

Madison Park Café was known for its cozy indoor atmosphere on cold days and its great outdoor seating on those rare warm days.  Café Parco will have more room in both its interior and exterior seating locations.  The intent, Celinda tells us, is to create new outdoor seating both directly in front of the restaurant (by extending the existing patio to the area along the sidewalk) and—ultimately—on the deck where the front door was located.  The new entrance to the Café Parco will be where the side door had been.  Remodeling of the interior will add another couple tables to that space as well.

The kitchen, meanwhile, has been expanded by moving the dishwashing operation downstairs (not very efficient, admittedly, but the only way to free up needed space, says Celinda).  The kitchen will be more enclosed than it was (mahogany glass doors and bookshelves are being installed to block unwelcome light and sound from the reconfigured new dining room).  While the hope had been to enlarge the cooking area and have a much larger hood, that has proven to be prohibitively expensive, so “We’ll just have to make do.”

Celinda says she’s looking forward to seeing what’s going to happen and is willing to make changes as she gets experience with the neighborhood and learns its tastes.  Some things may work well; and others, not so much.  “I can’t possibly make everyone happy,” she says, “but I can try.” 

[Cafe Parco will be open for lunch each weekday beginning tomorrow, Friday, October 14. Dinner will begin next week, and weekend brunches will follow thereafter.  For details, including hours of operation, check the Cafe Parco website (click here for details about the lunch menu).  Cafe Parco is located at 1807 42nd Avenue E.  (Phone: 328-4757). Note that Cafe Parco does not have its liquor license in place yet (though that should happen "soon").  In the meantime, Chef Celinda recommends that those who wish to have wine with dinner purchase a bottle at Madison Cellars (4227 E. Madison St.) and bring it along.]   

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