Crazy About Pazzo!
Reprinted with permission from the Raleigh News and Observer, December 12, 2003
by Greg Cox, Restaurant Critic
The trout was the clincher. My suspicions began with the intelligent pairing of plump mussels and bright green, crisp-tender nubbins of asparagus in the soup du jour that my wife had ordered as a starter the first time we dined at Pazzo. My fried oysters, each an ethereal puff of ocean savor captured in a fragile-crisp whisper of crust, were further clues.
The evidence mounted with my wife's main course of al dente penne in a seductive alla vodka sauce riddled with crunchy, deeply smoky bits of bacon.
But once I'd tasted my entree -- an impeccably fresh trout stuffed with kalamata olives and house-marinated artichoke hearts and roasted to crisp-skinned perfection in the restaurant's brick oven -- I was certain: Seth Kingsbury is a talent to be reckoned with.
Of course, that's hardly a stunning revelation, given the background of Pazzo's chef-owner. Kingsbury began his culinary career fresh out of high school in 1992 under Nana's Scott Howell. Since then, he has built an impressive resume that includes work with Magnolia Grill's Ben and Karen Barker and with superstar chef Jeremiah Tower at Stars in San Francisco. Kingsbury returned to Nana's three years ago, where he honed his skills with his original mentor before leaving to open Pazzo in September.
All that experience shows in a level of execution that rarely misses the mark, and never by much. Not surprisingly, the young chef's daily evolving menu shows considerable influence of Scott Howell, notably in its contemporary Italian theme and its emphasis on fresh ingredients presented without unnecessary embellishment.
Kingsbury's risotto with silver queen corn, asparagus and gorgonzola, for instance, could easily be an offering on the menu at Nana's, where risotto is a trademark dish. And his fritto misto of shrimp and calamari with spicy aioli would fit right in at Pop's, another Howell restaurant (until he sold it recently) where the young chef has worked.
Entrees live up to the high standards set by such auspicious beginnings. A 24-hour brine and a sure hand at the grill produce as succulent a double-cut pork chop as you could hope for, its earthy flavor set against the sweet-sour notes of peppers and onions agrodolce and a Dijon mustard sauce. A chestnut-skinned roasted half chicken demonstrates that stuffed trout isn't the only first-rate dish to emerge from the brick oven. And fusilli with wild mushrooms, sweet peas, grilled onions and roasted red peppers in a light porcini cream sauce is every bit as compelling as the penne alla vodka.
All these entrees become even more savory when you realize that their average price is between $14 and $15. Talk about bang for your buck.
Still, Pazzo isn't perfect. Those fried oysters, ineffably delicious during that one visit, were merely very good another night, their size being too small to exhibit a full oyster flavor. And a chocolate hazelnut torte was on the dry side. Tiramisu provides a much more satisfying conclusion, as does the oh-so-Italian of house-baked biscotti and vin santo, a sweet wine thoughtfully served in a glass shaped just right for dunking.
Service is enthusiastic, attentive and better trained than you'll find in some more expensive restaurants. But the tables in the small dining room are too closely spaced to carry on a private conversation. And, depending on your attitude toward fine dining in a casual setting, you'll either love the fact that you're looking out across your linen-draped table into Pazzo's adjoining pizzeria/takeout shop, or you'll hate it.
Personally, I love it. I get a kick out of sipping a glass of Chianti classico and watching moms and their kids, dads and their kids, grandmas and their grandkids sitting at the counter, sipping sodas from paper Pepsi cups and munching on slices of thin-crusted pizza from that same brick oven that turned out my stuffed trout. And knowing that they're probably enjoying their meal every bit as much as I am mine.
Even if I weren't especially fond of children, I'd still dine at Pazzo every time I had the chance. The food is simply too good and too reasonably priced to pass up. Besides, all the kids I've seen there have been well-behaved.
Kids and adults alike can appreciate the fact that the restaurant's name is Italian for "crazy." That dovetails nicely with the restaurant's slogan, "crazy about food." I would add another twist: You'd be crazy to pass up the chance to eat at Pazzo.