When it opened 13 years ago, Pazzo Ristorante's high-backed booths, gleaming copper-fitted kitchen and starched tablecloths represented the acme of a "fancy restaurant" in Portland. Designed as an Italian joint of the old school, Pazzo built its rep on expertly prepared Italian classics--generous sprawling salads, toothsome pasta plates, and rich beef and veal entrees.
Pazzo offered an air of cosmopolitan grace to downtown dining as the anchor eatery of Broadway's Hotel Vintage Plaza. Office folk congregate for shirtsleeve business luncheons, while the bar hums with a lively after-work scene. Perhaps most touchingly, disoriented travelers laden with shopping bags and suitcases drop their burdens when they smell the perfume of garlic drifting in from the dining room.
So, the restaurant has many audiences to please. And when the establishment's young-but-seasoned chef, John Eisenhart, took over in December, he presented new menus that mix Italian classics with more audacious ideas. So far the resulting meals, while often delicious, can be scattered--at times Euro-suave and classy, at others disorientingly fancy without always tasting uniformly fabulous. Can this schizophrenic approach work? Maybe there's reason for confidence rooted in the restaurant's name: After all, pazzo is Italian for "crazy."
For starters, Pazzo offers mostly familiar salads ($6-$8), while the antipasti plates present more adventurous fare, such as the tonno marinata ($9), chunks of rare yellowfin with a salad of shredded radicchio, bits of orange, and a ring of yellow mustard oil providing vivid visual contrast. The oil provided a peppery counterpoint to the smooth, unassailably fresh tuna, but the overall taste was surprisingly bland.
Similarly, the carpaccio d'agnello ($12)--that's right, raw lamb--is dressed with a drizzling of truffle oil and grana parmesan and served alongside a fringe of finely chopped celery curls and dill. Although the mere fact of eating lamb tartare can provide a culinary thrill, the flavor was so delicate that the soft truffle oil and celery seemed too unassertive to bring it forward--I longed for a sliver of lemon or a sharp bite of arugula.
As you might expect, pasta dishes are Pazzo's bankable best. The simple is wonderful here, as in the cappellini filetto di pomodoro ($10), a tangle of angel hair pasta with fragrant San Marzano tomatoes and fresh basil. The tomatoes (and basil) are left in large informal pieces to preserve the tender fruit's taste and texture, while the pasta is perfectly cooked. Likewise, the bucatini all'amatriciana ($13), with its winey sauce of tomato, red onion and pancetta, seems straight from the table of an unpretentious southern Italian trattoria.
Of the more substantial pastas, gnocchi with guinea hen ragú ($16) was lovely, the slow-stewed poultry lending savory warmth to the starchy pasta. The most cinematic pasta dish, the ravioli di salmone bianco e nero ($15), may be the menu's weakest--overlarge, salmon-stuffed ravioli (black on one side, white on the other) floundering in a rich sauce that tastes like little more than heavy cream and lemon zest.
Preparation is lavished on complex seafood and meat dishes, the restaurant's most gutsy departure from Italian classics. There are stuffed lamb cutlets ($14), lunch and dinner variations on sturgeon medallions ($14 lunch, $22 dinner), and a showy dish that may be too rich for the average night out, the anatra con tre sapore, which presents three separate duck preparations (confit, liver pate, and seared breast, $24).
Another excellent dish, the crostata di maile prica, (recently taken off the menu), offers a pork chop pounded flat and grilled, its edges crisp and interior sweet. The accompanying salad--orange and mint-scented arugula accented with fennel--is fragrant and flavorful, infinitely more interesting than the menu's official salads. The veal scallopini ($22) is gussied up with a sauce of mushrooms, marsala, prosciutto and greens--here, the dark stewy notes that make the gnocchi a treat are writ large.
Clearly, Eisenhart already displays the potential chops to update Pazzo, and the restaurant will be successful if he is allowed to let the food live up to its name. His menus should be aimed to nod--but not bow--to its past, jump-starting classic Italian dishes with unpredictable ingredients and the chef's imagination.
If the pasta is flawlessly al dente, if the seasonings and details are exactly right, then we won't miss those plates of oily focaccia, the bottle of olive oil on every table, the stuff of crowd-pleasing, nostalgic dross. Who knows what bargains are struck between kitchen and boardroom, but if the owners want a restaurant worthy of its name, crazy boldness ought to be encouraged, as a draw--and reward--for Portland's downtown diners.
627 SW Washington St., 228-1515. 11:30 am-2:30 pm Monday-Sunday, 5-10 pm Monday-Thursday, 5-11 pm Friday, 4:30-11 pm Saturday, 4-10 pm Sunday. $$ Moderate.
Picks: gnocchi with guinea-hen ragú, and other Italian-label pasta favorites: cappellini filetto di pomodoro and the bucatini all'amatriciana.
Pazzo and the Hotel Vintage Plaza are owned by the Heathman Group, which also owns the Heathman (duh!).
Chef John Eisenhart, who took over the Pazzo kitchen last December, claims he earned his nickname, "The Master of Pasta," from his former boss, the Heathman's Philippe Boulot.