Every year around the holidays, my cravings for a proper Italian dinner begin to flare. And I don’t just mean a need for a box of pasta and some red sauce (I’m a basic enough of a home cook to deal with those needs). I’m talking about spending a few solid hours with some friends at a local ristorante downing an antipasti, then a primi then a segundi, with a few bottles of dry Chianti and good conversation that lasts long after the last plates are cleared and the espresso is gone.
Perhaps these December cravings are a Pavlovian response in anticipation of Christmas Eve, when four generations of my U.S.-born Sicilian clan cook more shrimp scampi and eggplant parmesan than we know what to do with and get extra loud over lots of wine until someone’s sleepy kid finally says, “Can we go home yet?” Usually, I’m so busy I just wait out the hankerings until Christmas Eve. This time, I went to La Parolaccia to get my fill.
That’s because La Parolaccia is the only restaurant in Long Beach that reminds me that I’m not really Italian. My ancestors came through Ellis Island over 100 years ago and landed in L.A. with their distinctive Albanian-Italian heritage (including speaking the Gegh language). Since then, we’ve only spoken English, learned to cook bomb Mexican food and spread out of East L.A., into the Orange County suburbs and beyond.
At La Parolaccia, all of the servers speak Italian. Most of the time they speak (yell?) to each other in Italian. Sometimes, they will talk to each other while standing next to your table, just moments after speaking to you in perfect English. When I disgrace my heritage and butcher the pronunciation of my favorite dishes like ravioli di astice e gamberetti (lobster and shrimp ravioli in a Limoncello cream sauce) and timballo del legionario (baked rigatoni and short ribs), they never make me feel stupid; they just repeat it back in perfect, proper Roman Italian.
Most of the employees are either family members of the Italian immigrant owner (chef Stefano Procaccini) or students studying the language and culture at Cal State Long Beach. Stefano’s son, Michael Procaccini, is the house piazzaiolo, sweating over the built-in pizza oven that presides over the corner dining room making some of the bubbliest wood-fired pizzas in Long Beach.
Though other immigrants originally helped Stefano launch La Parolaccia 13 years ago, many of the core dishes (his mother’s recipe, natch) come from his native central Italy, where made-daily pasta (like the spaghetti nonna malvina) comes with lots of tomatoes, beef and pecorino cheese.
Procaccini travels back home often and rotates in new ideas frequently, all of which fall into the “how the hell is this so cheap and so good” range of affordability. A beef risotto is sautéed with a Barbera wine and topped with veal ossobuco. Hand-formed gnocci comes with ham, pancetta and spinach in a curry-like saffron cream sauce. And a recent special, fettuccine giallorosse, references the colors of the A.S. Roma soccer team with a mound of spinach, tomatoes, burrata and pine nuts.
On my most recent visit, I found the menu had been rearranged to include a “Mozzarella Bar” section, which highlighted the house-made cheeses in thoughtful appetizers like burricotta (ricotta-stuffed burrata) and scamorzetta (oven-baked mozzarella and prosciutto). I ordered one with our first bottle of wine. Somehow, even with the comfort of family and my great Uncle Joe’s famous clam sauce that defines my chaotic Christmas Eves, it was a dinner at La Parolaccia that proved the right solution to my year-end Italian food cravings. With a glass of wine in hand and the servers tossing phrases and orders in Italian around me, in that cozy osteria in the middle of Long Beach, I’ve never felt more at home.
2945 E. Broadway, Long Beach, (562)-438-1235; laparolacciausa.com.