The freshly made marinara isn't the only reason local residents have been flocking to Pazzo's since it opened in February. Occupying a spot at the end of a shopping plaza so new that the scent of drywall still lingers in the air, the restaurant is warm, welcoming, and casually upscale. Stone flooring, faux-marble columns, and elegant, diaphanous window treatments in earthy shades of brown and gold lend a classical elegance to the two dining rooms, a tiny lounge, and a little retail wine market. White tablecloths and black napkins look crisp and chic, and seating is in broad, upholstered chairs or at comfortable banquettes. Soft lighting, from a combination of oil lamps, recessed fixtures, and sinuous chandeliers, creates a flattering, intimate glow. Nonetheless, this may not be the ideal spot for a cozy tête-à-tête: Particularly in the main dining room, tables are so closely packed that the noise level and lack of privacy can preclude all but the loudest and most mundane of conversations.
Chances are, however, that guests will be so busy perusing the huge menu, then gorging on the enormous portions, that romantic conversations will seem irrelevant. Why put your ruby lips to work murmuring sweet nothings, for example, when they could be caressing fried calamari, stuffed banana peppers, or thick triangles of crunchy crusted provolone? And who has the inclination for idle chitchat when a fragrant gourmet pizza is beckoning seductively from its pan?
While most of the appetizers, soups, salads, sandwiches, pastas, pizzas, grilled steaks and chops, and standards like Veal Marsala and Chicken Saltimbocca are conventional fare, the kitchen stirs things up from time to time with some culinary creativity. We sadly passed on the intriguing-sounding California Pizza Salad, with its seven different lettuces, Roma tomato, Bermuda onion, herbs, garlic, and balsamic vinaigrette, piled onto a fully baked pizza crust: There are, unfortunately, only so many dishes we could cram into our two visits. But there was no resisting the Pasta Nachos, an appetizer extraordinaire, full of cheeses, garlic, olives, sausage, pesto, and onions on a bed of seasoned and fried lasagna chips (very much like tortilla chips), on a plate the size of a sombrero. Savory, salty, and satisfyingly crunchy, the dish was whimsical fun --and more than enough for an entire family to share.
We also tried Fat Johnny's Combo Appetizer, a giant sampler of zippy Italian-sausage-stuffed banana peppers; tender if somewhat limp breaded calamari rings; thick triangles of crunchy, panko-coated fried provolone (a grown-up version of mozzarella sticks); and meaty ribs in thick, mild barbecue sauce. The entire affair -- again, enough for a crowd -- was prettily arranged on a greens-lined glass platter in the shape of a fish, sprinkled with black olive rings, and garnished with lemon wedges for a dish that was as appealing to the eye as it was to the taste buds.
In truth, though, appetizers are entirely optional at Pazzo's. All entrées come with slender, freshly baked loaves of butter-and-herb-slathered bread (with that tasty marinara sauce for dipping) and big tossed salads, with a choice of good dressings; in addition, meat-based entrées are accompanied by a generous serving of penne or angel-hair pasta.
Typically, the kitchen dispenses fresh herbs and garlic with a free hand, serves its pasta not too far past al dente, and pays attention to both preparation and presentation. Tuscany Shrimp, brought to the table in another pretty fish-shaped serving piece, bore witness to the merits of that approach. Here, eight large crustaceans had been gently sautéed, then tossed with fistfuls of chopped parsley, chives, and basil, and settled on a bed of delicate angel hair for a dish that seemed to burst with freshness. It wouldn't have hurt, however, if the kitchen had used some restraint in the sheer amount of olive oil, lemon juice, and white wine "sauce" it applied to the pasta. The broth-like liquid pooled on the bottom of the bowl, making the dish a potential minefield for all but the tidiest diners.
Veal Pazzo, one of the restaurant's most popular entrées, turned out to be an aromatic homage to fresh garlic, with its thinly pounded veal scallops blanketed in chopped garlic cloves and topped with black olive rings, chopped tomato, and plenty of fresh basil. The menu also noted that the dish contained a "secret" seasoning, but beneath the pleasantly pungent flavors of garlic and basil, the secret -- whatever it is -- was entirely beyond our detection.
Chicken Saltimbocca (boneless chicken breast, topped with prosciutto and melted provolone) was slightly dry but plenty flavorful, and a gourmet Northern Italian White Za!, its thick, tender crust brushed with mild garlic sauce, then covered with provolone, fresh Roma tomato halves, and chopped red onion, was comfortingly chewy and rich. However, we felt misled by the menu's imprecise description of two long-boned pork chops, "served with an Asiago cheese, sun-dried tomato, and portobello mushroom dollop, over herbed polenta with drizzled balsamic garlic sauce." Turns out that, rather than the chops being served over herbed polenta, as we had assumed, it was the dollop (a finely diced blend of the aforementioned portobellos, tomatoes, and cheese, molded into an orb about the size of a Ping-Pong ball) that was served over the merest smidgen of cornmeal mush. Polenta fans that we are, we found this to be a disappointment -- and one not ameliorated by the fact that one of the two chops had been considerably overcooked.
Owners John Kocevar, Renee Gallucci, and Mike and Janet Messina have designed a lengthy international wine list, with plenty of well-respected names and a number of bottles falling into the $18 to $30 range. If a diner should become enamored of a particular wine, the small in-house wine market carries bottles that can be purchased at retail to take home. But while it is clear that thought has gone into assembling the wine offerings, server education seems to have been neglected. Our own waitress, in fact, didn't know her reds from her whites. At least that's how it appeared when we ordered a glass of Fat Bastard Shiraz and she brought us a glass of Fat Bastard Chardonnay instead. When we suggested she had made an error, her response was terse. "The computer says that's your wine," she shrugged, "and that's all I know." (Ultimately, someone in the kitchen must have confirmed our story: The server returned in a few minutes with our red and an apology.)
Kocevar says that as the kitchen becomes more efficient, homemade desserts will be added to the menu. But for now, at least, Pazzo's goodies are the usual compilation of commercial cheesecakes, carrot cakes, and tall tortes -- sweets that seemed too routine and too heavy to tempt us to indulge. Instead, we paid our bill and tiptoed through the parking lot to the nearby Handel's ice cream stand for a final taste of something cool and creamy.
A scoop of chocolate pecan ice cream doesn't go with marinara, of course. Then again . . . if the marinara is from Pazzo's, it just might be worth a try.