In a city already packed with classic Italian-American restaurants, old and new, we always wonder that more continue to open. There are surely unplumbed depths to the many regional cuisines of Italy, but what more remains to be said in the language of red sauce?
Perhaps it’s the appeal of the tried and true. A menu of pizza, lasagna and fettuccine Alfredo may not promise excitement, but it generally offers something to satisfy even the most conservative diners in a given family, friend group or occasional gathering of coworkers. Plus, it is practically imperative for the over-21 to drink cheap Chianti in such restaurants, upping the odds that a good time will be had by all.
These thoughts framed our expectations of Pazzo, a fairly new establishment in a freestanding building between the Galleria and South Hills Village. Its menu is a compendium of Italian-American favorites, but “red sauce” doesn’t really do it justice: While marinara, clam sauce and Bolognese were all present and accounted for, seafood was served over fettuccine with a white-wine cream sauce finished with lemon, and penne in marinara was augmented with garlic, oil, spinach, sun-dried tomatoes and pignola.
We were tempted by mini arancini, but learned they were about to be pulled from the menu. In the course of this conversation with our server, we were offered the bar menu, which featured its own assortment of appetizers. From this, we ordered Parmesan seafood dip. Shrimp, crab and lobster were mixed with cheese sauce and broiled, then topped with diced tomato. The sauce was mild, rich but not too heavy, and bites with lumps of shellfish were rewarding. Our main complaint was too few mini crostini came with it. Like most dips, this was too rich to eat with a spoon.
Stuffed banana peppers were hot, hot, hot. Whether this was by design or by chance — banana peppers are notoriously fickle in their fieriness — we preferred it to a wimpier preparation.
The menu includes sections for both pizza and flatbread, but does not exactly distinguish between them. Pizzas are rounder, maybe? Or thinner? Regardless, we liked the meat-lovers’ flatbread, an oblong slab of crust topped with pepperoni, sausage and bacon. The kitchen used these potentially overwhelming toppings judiciously, so that the cheese and pleasantly sweet sauce played complementary roles to all the meats’ salty savor. The crust was crisp, and while it lacked any real chew, it wasn’t one-dimensional either.
Pasta was divided into tossed and baked preparations for a total of almost 20 options. The homestyle lasagna had a great texture, with thin layers of pasta and a pleasing balance between chewy mozzarella and creamy ricotta, but the flavor was meek and mild. The scanty tomato sauce failed to assert itself with either sweetness or acidity, and an intensely flavored third cheese was wanting.
Angelique loves penne in creamy, sweetly tomatoey vodka sauce, and she was happy with Pazzo’s version. It was studded with savory morsels of pancetta that added texture as well as substance and dimension to the sauce’s taste.
Pazzo’s meat and chicken entrée options went a bit deeper than a typical Italian restaurant menu, leading Jason to try veal pesto Caprese — cutlets sautéed in Marsala sauce and served with pesto-roasted tomatoes and melted Fontina cheese. The pesto’s effects were hard to discern, and while the veal was pleasingly, if subtly, flavored by the wine, the overall effect was pretty bland. Worse, while the cheese and tomatoes offered a pleasing interplay of chewiness and juiciness, the veal wasn’t nearly as tender as it should have been. It was not tough, exactly, but tenderness is the sine qua non of veal cutlets, so it’s hard to forgive anything less.
Ultimately, that pretty well summarizes our feelings about this latest Italian-American restaurant. Old-school Italian places serve up nostalgia and some context for the long-standing popularity of this genre. Modern, regional Italian restaurants bid to acquaint us with new and professional preparations. What does Pazzo bring to the table? Pretty good, familiar food in anodyne suburban surroundings.