Pazo opened in 2004 with a Spanish-influenced menu and it kept on being Spanish until just last month, when it unveiled a new, wholly Italian format.
That's a pretty big change. I'd compare it to the ninth season of "Roseanne," when the Conners won $108 million in the Ohio state lottery.
Has Pazo jumped the shark?
Hardly. Pazo is still in the hands of Baltimore's most capable restaurateurs, the Foreman Wolf group, who have a track record of making their restaurants work. Tony Foreman and Cindy Wolf are inveterate improvers, always seemingly one step ahead of the dining public. And Pazo's changeover is just the most extreme example of their adroit gamesmanship — think of Charleston's shift to a tasting menu, or the several retoolings of Cinghiale's menu format.
Pazo's changeover feels to me seamless, and I like how its focus on the cuisines of Southern Italy complements that of Cinghiale, just a few blocks away, where the inspiration is Central and Northern Italy. The executive chef for both restaurants is Julian Marucci, and the pleasure of dinner at this new Pazo is a shared sense of excitement. Marucci, you can tell, is having a ball tromping through regions of Italy whose cuisines are not so familiar to American diners.
For the diner, there are lovely and unusual things like a lamb prosciutto, served with radishes and chopped pistachios, and intriguing combinations of things, such as wood-grilled octopus served with smoked potatoes, chili flakes and celery hearts.
There is a must-have zuppa di fregula, a full-flavored Sardinian soup that suspends specimen-quality clams, mussels and shrimp in a shimmering lobster broth. "Fregula" is a tiny couscous-size pasta, which closely resembles the farfel you might find in matzo ball soup.
If you see squid-ink calamarata among the pastas, order it. Calamarata, a specialty of Campania, a region in Southern Italy, is squid-shaped pasta — you saw that coming. Pazo tosses them with meaty monkfish, aromatic clams, garlic, zucchini and basil. It's dazzling and delicious.
A pan-roasted half-chicken, marinated in olive oil, is kept juicy and tender the Calabrian way, by weighing down the chicken with a brick. Delicate pieces of wood-grilled branzino are accompanied by a feather-light potato cake and firm fava beans, the prize legume of Puglia.
You'll have no trouble recognizing Pazo, where the ruby-hued upholstery, flowing drapery and marble floors still shimmer and shine in this converted 19th-century machine shop.
But wait, you're thinking, wasn't Pazo's decor inspired by Spanish vernacular architecture, and isn't its name Spanish for "grand house?" My advice is to put these questions out of your head.
You'll need some of your brain to figure out the menu, which is a little confusing at first.
The menu is divided into three main sections. The first lists small plates, which Pazo refers to unhelpfully as "stuzzichini," an Italian word for "appetizers" or "snacks." Then comes a short listing of Neapolitan pizzas, topped with all kinds of good imported things like mozzarella di bufala, Calabrese chili peppers and Castelvetrano olives.
The third section comprises groups of antipasti, pastas and main plates, all of which are available a la carte or part of a $45 three-course meal.
It eventually made sense, and we got good advice from the get-go, and along the way, from our server, who encouraged us to think big about our appetites. It was she who persuaded us to each get our own bowl of the zuppa di fregula — thanks, again — and to leave room for dessert. We tried two, a Sicilian cassata cake, which I liked for its simple marzipan-like pleasure, and a coconut semifreddo, made memorable by a burnt honey caramel sauce.
Pazo offers diners a deep and interesting wine list and a knowledgeable staff to help them make good decisions, like ordering glasses of fruity rosato from Puglia to complement both the chicken and the branzino.
That's what we expect from Foreman Wolf, whom we sometimes take for granted. What unifies Foreman Wolf dining is how seriously on mission everyone stays, from the owners to the impeccably trained front-of-house staff to the capable kitchen team.
But it's not professionalism for its own sake. At Pazo, it felt like everyone's energy was being harnessed in the interest of serving you great food — great Italian food, that is.
Where: 1425 Aliceanna St., Harbor East
Contact: 410-534-7296, pazorestaurant.com
Open: 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays
Prices: Appetizers: $4-$9; entrees: $26-$30
Food: Contemporary Italian food inspired by the cuisines of Southern Italy
Service: Very well informed and concerned about the diners' enjoyment
Parking: Complimentary valet parking is provided.
Children: There are child-friendly menu items, and pasta dishes are available in half sizes.
Special diets: The staff is prepared to offer suggestions, and the kitchen is prepared to accommodate special dietary needs.
Noise level/televisions: Normal conversation is fine in most dining areas, but the music tends to get louder as the night goes on. There are no TVs at Pazo.
[Star key: Superlative: 5; Excellent: 4; Very Good: 3; Good: 2; Promising: 1]Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun