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Published: Thursday, 5/17/2007

Restaurant review: Paesano's Restaurant & Wine Bar ****

Ann Arbor is a great town for eating, which I've discovered time and again at many of the restaurants that contribute to the Michigan city's high cultural profile.

So how, in all those forays up north, could I have missed Paesano's Restaurant & Wine Bar, a gem of a place right next to the Arborland Mall on Washtenaw Avenue?

Whereas the food at most Italian restaurants can more properly be called Italian-American, Paesano's lays claim to serving authentic Italian dishes from recipes that owe much of their provenance to the northern region of Veneto, home of the chef, Isabella Nicoletti. Michael and Bridget Roddy, the owners, are content to characterize the cuisine as rustic country Italian cooking, with an accent on fresh seasonal dishes.

Of course, you'll find the familiar - spaghetti, lasagna, eggplant, chicken parmigiana, veal scaloppini, and so on -served in a chandeliered setting of yellow, red, green, and purple accents, with dozens of china plates and classic Italian illustrations decorating the walls.

But diners can also feast on such imaginative dishes as dandelion and asiago tortino, wild boar ragu, frog legs and fettuccini, seafood crepes in lemongrass cream and calamari sauce, and drunken tuna Marchigian style, an architecturally comical dish that's as tipsy as its name.

Paesano's is more than a mere restaurant, however: It's Italy Central for patrons who frequent the place. Each month, for example, the proprietors offer classes for both tourists and serious students of the Italian language. In the fall, customers are invited to sign up for a guided trip to Italy. And throughout the year there are special Italian wine dinners and weekly wine tastings from Paesano's impressive cellars.

As for Chef Isabella, her seasonal recipes are the subject of a lavish new cookbook, Perbacco Isabella. She also was invited to create an upcoming wine dinner at the prestigious Beard House in New York, named after the late James Beard, regarded as the father of American gastronomy. She joins many of the nation's finest chefs who have cooked in the Beard House kitchen.

Dinner one evening brought several nice surprises from the regular and special menus, beginning with an appetizer of asparagus and smoked swordfish ($12.50), a dish perhaps inspired by Bridget Roddy's Sicilian roots. A cup of unremarkable minestrone was trumped by delicious bacon-lentil soup, while the house salad wilted in comparison to the refreshing spinach salad ($4.95) with figs and oranges in a basil mint vinaigrette.

Among the entrees, crab-crusted walleye ($19.95) with an olive oil drizzle vied with tender braised veal roast ($17.50) accompanied by sauteed greens and mustard cream. Giuseppe's Braciola ($18.50), named after the chef's father, turned out to be a thick, beautifully chargrilled pork chop with herbs and citrus, heightened in flavor by smoked onion and potato ratatouille.

As for the drunken tuna Marchigian ($23.50), a recipe drawn from the Marche region of Italy, it features tiles of tuna, pan-seared and perilously stacked, as if the accompanying marsala sauce alone might send them toppling.

Equally satisfying was a lunch of Paesana lasagna ($9.95) in a light, homemade tomato sauce; turkey breast panini ($9.50) with bacon and melted swiss, served with peppercorn mustard and sauteed spinach, and sensational veal scaloppini ($14.50) with prosciutto, lemon, and angel hair pasta. The cutlet itself was worth the price, perfectly crunchy on the outside and superbly moist within. As Chef Isabella herself might say, "Molto bene!"

To get there from Toledo, take U.S. 23 north to the Washtenaw Avenue West exit and take a left. The restaurant is on the right, just past Arborland Mall.

Contact Bill of Fare at: fare@theblade.com.



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