I would not be surprised if one day soon Michelangelo’s David statue, a symbol for Sarasota, is replaced by a sculpture of a giant meatball resplendent on a mound of melting mozzarella. That’s how strong the Italian restaurant trend is locally. One out of two eateries that opens is Italian, and, frankly, there’s not much difference in the preparations.
But a small new storefront restaurant called Pazzo is distinguishing itself by its New York-style Italian cooking and a smart Southside Village location. The surrounding streets are filled with young families and retirees, all of whom like heading—often walking—to a local eatery rather than driving downtown.
Pazzo seats about 65 people inside, outside and in a narrow, covered alleyway of glass and solid wall. The walls are decorated with framed art done by students at Southside Elementary, where the two children of Pazzo owners chef Michael and Victoria Calore spend their days.
The Calores come with an impressive pedigree. They are the founders of Mozzarella Fella, a popular sandwich shop on Main Street they sold last December to move to this larger space and expand the menu. (They had restaurants in Staten Island and Brooklyn before relocating here). The name of their new place translates to “crazy,” and the tag line for Pazzo is “crazy good food.”
One meal I like is the veal spiedini at $26. Thin veal cutlets are wrapped around pieces of mozzarella cheese and spinach, rolled in seasoned breadcrumbs and cooked with white wine and capers. It’s served over mashed potatoes for a meal that’s hearty and full-flavored. You’re in comfort-food country when you tuck into this one.
Other favorites that sound less Italian but are irresistible are blackened tuna with mango salsa and roasted sweet potatoes. The addition of broccoli rabe to the plate tells you it came from an Italian kitchen. Braised and boneless short ribs are served with mashed potatoes and sautéed spinach for $25, and the boneless breaded pork chop ($23) is enlivened with hot cherry pepper and a balsamic reduction. Filet mignon with cognac sauce is the most expensive entrée at $30. No fuss about presentation or bother
The menu offers about a half-dozen pizzas ($10-$12) and seven pasta dishes ($16-$22), including four Parmigiana preparations with either eggplant, meatball, chicken or veal. Rigatoni with prosciutto and mushrooms is heavy on the garlic—I mean smashed soft pieces as big as a dime. Lobster risotto is a house specialty and justly popular. Seafood linguini and the traditional spaghetti and meatballs have significant appeal.
Appetizers, salads and soups are plentiful, but get the baked clams for a good starter at $12 or $18, depending on how many. Outrageously delicious.
The Pazzo decor is black-and-white New York casual; it’s fun and kicky. Two big-screen TVs mounted on the walls, bare tables, black cloth napkins, white plateware and black bistro chairs complete a look that’s neat, contemporary and entertaining.
Service is prompt and pleasant, and servers check on diners to make sure everyone is content. No full bar, but beer and wine are available by the glass or bottle. Whites, reds and sparkling wines range from $30 to $110 a bottle and are mostly from the American West, with a few Italian favorites. On the beer list are two Italian brews.
Desserts include the usual cannoli, tiramisu and creme brûlée, and they’re just fine at $8. But the star of the dessert menu is the Pazzo pie ($10), a Nutella pizza with marshmallows, strawberries and chocolate sauce. I’m pretty sure I could happily eat that for breakfast with black coffee.
At lunch, the menu is similar to dinner, except that at lunch, and only at lunch (up to 4 p.m.), you can indulge in a composed sandwich such as fried eggplant ($12) with prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, roasted peppers and balsamic glaze, or maybe a braised short rib monster ($14) with caramelized onions and Gorgonzola, or perhaps a filet mignon hand-held ($16) paired with fried onion, cheddar and smeared with roasted garlic mayonnaise. All sandwiches are served with choice of fries or salad—an embarrassment of riches.
Now that our snowbirds are away, new and established local restaurants at all price points need to be creative in attracting locals who have lots of choices and can afford to be picky. I’m picking Pazzo as one with staying power.
Pazzo | 1830 S. Osprey Ave., Sarasota, (941) 260-8831 | Lunch and dinner: Monday-Thursday, 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday, 11a.m.-10 p.m.; Saturday, 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Closed Sunday. Parking on the street or valet behind the building. Wine and beer only; reservations accepted; handicapped accessible