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Italian star: Paisano’s excels at housemade pasta, marinara, gluten-free dishes

Up until a few years ago, Paisano’s was best known for its housemade pasta, marinara and wealth of gluten-free offerings.

That all changed in 2016 when owner Rick Camuglia decided to promote a new olive tapenade dish by posting the words “Black Olives Matter” on the restaurant’s sign just feet from Eubank. Camuglia claimed it was nothing more than a humorous pun on the Black Lives Matter movement. Others were not amused, saying it trivialized an important protest movement against the killing of Black people by the police.

Camuglia remained defiant. He put the slogan on T-shirts and hats, and sold them out of his restaurant from a display behind the cash register. He wore the shirt in interviews as the story was picked up by media outlets far and wide.

The drama called to mind Spike Lee’s seminal 1989 film “Do the Right Thing,” in which the Italian American owner of a pizza shop in a Black neighborhood refused to place photographs of notable African Americans in his restaurant. In the film’s climactic scene, an angry mob burned the place to the ground.

Fortunately, nothing so violent happened at Paisano’s, although things grew so contentious during a February 2017 protest that Camuglia reportedly brandished a pistol.

Four years later, little evidence of the controversy remains. There was no Black Olives Matter merchandise visible behind the register during a recent visit; only jars of marinara. A server, fairly bursting with energy and enthusiasm, bellowed a greeting as he came out of the kitchen with my food.

Paisano’s is nothing if not resilient. The faded photographs in the lobby attest to its status as one of the city’s oldest restaurants, dating back to the early 1970s. Throughout the pandemic, it’s been open for lunch and dinner during the week, and dinner on weekends.

Meat and cheese lasagna is one of many gluten-free options on Paisano’s menu. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

The menu features pizza, pasta and veal, along with such intriguing weekly specials as seafood risotto and roasted game hen with wild rice.

Soup has long been one of the highlights of a meal at Paisano’s. When I called to order, the host raved to me about the cream of mushroom soup ($6.25) and he wasn’t wrong. A silky, salty broth flavored with onions and sliced mushrooms that still had some body to them, it was quite addictive and I was reluctant to share.

Paisano’s makes a 10-inch pizza with thin or thick crust. The thick-crust version with pepperoni ($14.25), blistered and charred from the oven, was solid, if overpriced. It had a good balance of cheese and sauce, and the pepperoni, curled and crisp at the edges, was noticeably spicy.

Linguini in pesto sauce is one of the many pasta offerings at Paisano’s. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

The housemade pasta is exceptional. The full order comes with your choice of soup or salad. A half-order of linguini with basil pesto ($14.50) presents the classic combination of garlic, olive oil and Parmesan, but swaps the traditional pine nuts for walnuts. It loses a lot of its visual appeal sitting in the bottom of a cardboard box, but the pesto was bursting with a nutty flavor that the firm, yet chewy, noodles avidly absorbed.

Almost every dish here comes in a gluten-free version, no small feat when you’re serving up a cuisine that relies so heavily on wheat flour. A full order of gluten-free meat and cheese lasagna ($24.95) was about the size of a brick. The lasagna was supple, the Italian sausage tasted faintly of fennel and the mild-flavored ricotta paired well with the acid of an outstanding marinara that lets the flavor of the tomatoes shine.

Shrimp scampi with garlic bread, a recent special at Paisano’s. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

Among other choices, there are four veal dishes for just under $30. You can substitute chicken on any of them. Seafood often turns up in the weekly specials, as in scampi ($11.95) the day I went. The three large, fresh shrimp were an ideal match for a terrific scampi sauce of butter and white wine. There was no pasta with it, just a slab of garlic bread.

Paisano’s tiramisu is composed of alternating layers of mascarpone cream and spongecake soaked in espresso and Marsala wine. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

All of Paisano’s desserts are gluten-free. Its version of tiramisu ($7) consists of alternating layers of mascarpone cream and spongecake soaked in espresso and Marsala wine. It’s a nice preparation, the coffee-and-booze-soaked cake an airy counterpoint to the rich mascarpone.

In contrast to the pricey food, the wine list is heavy on affordable bottles, mostly from Italy and California. Almost all the house wines come in at $25 a bottle.

As for service, my food was ready about 20 minutes after I called in my order. The host who took my order and brought the food out merits special mention – he is an excellent ambassador for the place.

Now in its sixth decade, Paisano’s chugs along in a changing world on the strength of its food, if not its owner’s sense of humor.