For years, the Duke City dining scene has been infiltrated by a plethora of cookie cutter Italian “chain gangs.” Despite deep corporate pockets, the flash and panache of Madison Avenue marketing machines and scripted, saccharine service, the chains have failed to drive away the beloved local mom and pop establishments to which Duke City diners remain steadfastly loyal? One of the very best of the mom-and-pop lot is Paisano’s Italian Restaurant which was launched in the 1970s by Johnny Camuglia. Paisano’s gained a faithful following well before the plague-like incursion of the Olive Garden, Johnny Carino’s and others of that ilk. Four decades later under his son Rick, Paisano’s is still going strong thanks to doing things right for Duke City customers.
The right things are often the small things such as paying attention to the details, the real difference makers. It’s things like preparing everything on the premises from scratch. It’s things like preparing fresh pasta, veal, fish, poultry and beef in the traditional Italian ways. The motto at Paisano’s is “we cook like your Italian grandma.” It’s not only an apt description for Paisano’s no short-cuts approach to preparing terrific Italian food, but a tribute to the love with which Italian grandmothers approach cooking for their families.
No short-cuts means nothing is prepared until after you order it. Your meal doesn’t sit out under some heat lamp waiting for a server to deliver it to your table. When an order is placed is when the kitchen goes into action, rolling, cutting and cooking your fresh pasta. The restaurant’s ravioli, lasagna, manicotti and other fresh stuffed pastas are handmade as are sauces which range from fresh basil pesto to white clam sauce. Made with 100-percent Semolina flour and fresh eggs, the housemade pasta is unfailingly fresh and delicious. Paisano’s also offers a gluten-free option as well as spinach or tomato pastas.
One other example as to how Paisano’s pays attention to the difference makers is the complementary bread basket comprised of focaccia, black olive bread and more. The bread is served with a mixture of balsamic vinegar, olive oil, Parmesan cheese and herbs–not the boring herbs served at other Italian restaurants, but herbs with taste contrasts that complement one another (including flecks of red and black pepper that sizzle on your tongue). You can purchase bread to take home, too. It’s bakery-quality bread your family will enjoy.
Among the other things done right are the roasted garlic appetizer with local goat cheese, roasted peppers, capers and bruschetta toast (pictured above). This appetizer is absolutely perfect almost every time although a bread-based appetizer on top of the complementary bread basket may fill you up quickly. Fortunately the other appetizer standards are all terrific. You can also count on the specials menu to include a special can’t miss starter.
There are some flavor combinations which challenge even the most skilled of chefs. Among them are the unnatural pairing of fruit and seafood. One item which has proven concordant with almost everything with which it is paired is pork. At Paisano’s, one of the more intriguing appetizer options is the pairing of prosciutto (a thinly-sliced, cured ham often mistakenly referred to as Italian bacon) and shrimp. Paisano’s takes a handful of shrimp, wraps them in prosciutto and serves them with a marinara sauce. The prosciutto has a salty and briny, but delicate flavor which melds beautifully with the sweet, succulent shrimp and the acidity of the marinara sauce.
Lighter appetizer fare is available in the form of a stuffed portabella mushroom, a large sauteed mushroom cap stuffed with sweet Italian sausage and spinach then topped with melted mozzarella and sweet basil. Large enough for two to share, the stuffed portabella mushroom is like an island of deliciousness surrounded by a tomato sauce lagoon. Though you might expect for the tomato sauce to dominate, all flavor components shine brightly on their own, complementing one another as all great flavor combinations do. The sweet Italian sausage is the star, as good as any Italian sausage in the Duke City. The portabella, a fleshy and flavorful fungi has a fresh woodsy and deeply rich, strong flavor. The tomato sauce appears to be made from hand-squeezed Roma tomatoes and is fresh and delicious.
Genesis 25:34 recounts the story of Isaac’s two sons Esau and Jacob. Esau, the elder son was willing to give up his birthright for a pot of fragrant lentil soup prepared by Jacob. I’ve often wondered if Paisano’s managed to get hold of Jacob’s recipe. That’s how good their lentil soups is, particularly when ameliorated with the restaurant’s housemade sausage. Warming the cockles of your heart, especially during a blustery evening, are an array of these succulent soups, some of the best in the city. This is comfort food soup of gourmet quality–perfectly seasoned, served steamy hot and portioned generously.
With full-order dinner entrees, you have your choice of soup or salad and that’s a tough choice because Paisano’s has a terrific dinner salad–also one of the best in the city (especially if served with the restaurant’s sharp blue cheese). Every time I think I’ve experienced Paisano’s most superlative soup, the soup of the day changes and a better soup than my prior favorite emerges as the possessor of my heart.
The quadrumvirate of taste bud tantalizing soups currently vying for my affections starts with the lentil soup, a deliciously spicy concoction with the restaurant’s housemade sausage (something you can never have enough of). Aristophanes, an ancient Greek dramatist called lentil soup “the sweetest of delicacies” and even mentioned it in his plays. He didn’t praise it because it’s a good source of protein, fiber, iron and potassium. He praised it because it’s absolutely delicious.
The second soup on my list is a mushroom and spinach soup (pictured above) in which the flavor and fragrance of the fleshy fungi comes to the forefront. It’s not quite as thick and creamy as some mushroom soup tends to be, but that allows for the named ingredients to shine. Only the magnificent mushroom soup at Cafe Jean-Pierre is in the same league
Who doesn’t love tomato soup, the archetypal comfort soup that’s been warming tummies and hearts for generations? No soup better represents American comfort food and few in New Mexico does it as well as Paisano’s. If you love the purity of fresh, acidic, meaty tomatoes sliding down your throat and warming your belly, this is the soup for you.
Autumn and winter signal the widespread availability of butternut squash with its bright orange flesh and a nutty, sweet taste some liken to sweet potatoes. Butternut squash is prevalent in Italian pasta and soup dishes such as Paisano’s butternut squash soup with ham. While many restaurants offer butternut squash soup or bisque in season, some prepare it almost dessert sweet. Paisano’s rendition is only slightly sweet and made even better because it’s punctuated by the salty influence of ham sliced into tiny cubes.
Lest I be remiss and omit mentioning another pre-prandial star, Paisano’s serves a mean Caesar salad (replete with artichoke hearts and olives). Crisp and fresh Romaine lettuce and spicy, housemade croutons dressed with a deliciously light Parmesan cheese and olive oil dressing make this salad a popular choice.
Paisano’s entrees generally border on excellence and the specials earn that sobriquet as few in town do. Entrees range from the simple–spaghetti with meatballs or Italian sausage–to sublime–Fresh Boston Bluefish. Jim Millington, a trusted fellow gastronome, contends that Albuquerque’s best seafood can be found in Italian restaurants such as the much missed Vivace and Paisano’s. I’ll second him there. Some of the very best seafood entries we’ve had in the Duke City have come from Paisano’s. That starts with the fruit of the sea.
The lasagna frutta di mare (fruit of the sea) is among the very best lasagna entrees I’ve had in a restaurant anywhere outside of Massachusetts: black (from squid ink) pasta layered with fresh scallops, shrimp, calamari, clams, snapper, roasted smoked Roma tomato, three cheeses, and marinara and asiago cream sauces. This is a rich and complex entree that takes four hours to prepare. As such it’s on the menu only as a special of the evening and not as standard fare. Were it on the standard menu, it might be the only thing I order and for that I’d be missing out on other succulent seafood excellence.
If it’s on the specials menu, don’t miss out on the fresh Boston Bluefish, an oily and fatty cold water Cape Cod fish with a rich, strong flavor. It’s so strong, in fact, that it’s typically marinated in acidic foods such as lime or lemon juice, vinegar, wine or tomato sauce. Strong doesn’t necessarily mean “fishy” and that’s certainly the case here. The Boston Bluefish entree at Paisano’s is unique in its preparation, wholly unlike any bluefish I ever had in Massachusetts.
Maryland transplant and trusted fellow gastronome Larry McGoldrick happened upon this special months before I did. He described it as “perfectly prepared” indicating it “exploded in his mouth with complex tastes.” He christened it “one of the finest dinners he’s had in New Mexico” and urged seafood lovers to do campaign for this entree to be featured on the menu. ”Beg. Offer your firstborn. You’ll be delighted.” he declared in his rousing endorsement of a special I just had to try.
The bluefish is encrusted with hazelnuts and pan-sauteed, finished with sun-dried tomato butter on butternut squash risotto. The fillet is easily an inch thick, every bit of its outer core encrusted with finely crushed and toasted hazelnuts. What a wonderfully refreshing change from the de rigueur flour-coated fish you’ll find on many a menu. The fish is moist and fleshy, not as light and flaky as some white fish, but much, much more flavorful. It’s not quite as oily as sardines, but not at all fishy. Within its hazelnut crust, its richness shines. This is a fantastic fish entree!
The butternut squash risotto is a worthy accompaniment. The creamy richness of the risotto bespeaks of buttery starchiness. Its texture is smooth, maybe not quite velvety, but certainly not crunch as risotto which hasn’t been vigilantly watched over as it’s being prepared. Perhaps because it requires constant vigilance, few restaurants serve even a passable risotto. Paisano’s serves a good one.
If seafood doesn’t float your boat, perhaps Paisano’s sweet Italian sausage might. At several Italian restaurants in Albuquerque, Italian sausage is more than a misnomer, it’s an outright fabrication. Italian sausage should not taste like Jimmy Dean brand sausage or those mystery links you sometimes see on all-you-can-choke-down buffets. Italian sausage should be redolent with the flavor of fennel blessed, perfectly seasoned pork. It should be moist, succulent and delicious, a melding of sweet and savory flavors. That’s what you’ll find at Paisano’s and it’s housemade.
The sweet Italian sausage is showcased in an entree called Fettuccini Alla Lucchese (pictured above), a spicy tomato-cream sauce with Italian sausage, chicken, sun-dried tomatoes, portabella mushrooms and sage served with fresh fettuccini. As with so many of the restaurant’s tomato-based sauces, this one appears to be made with hand-squeezed, red rich Roma tomatoes. It makes a difference. This is a fantastic entree, one in which complex flavors coalesce into a delicious whole crowned by rich, creamy dollop.
An even better canvass for the sausage might be the Grilled Italian Sausage Links special with roasted potatoes, red and green peppers, grilled onions and a crumbled ricotta salata. If there’s a season made for roasting vegetables, it’s fall and winter when this special is available. Paisano’s vegetables are roasted to perfection. You know they’re perfectly roasted when typically bitter vegetables such as red and green peppers and strong vegetables such as onions are imbued with a pleasant, maybe even slightly-sweet flavor. Not only that, roasting preserves the natural nutrients of the vegetables. Few things in this world are as wonderful as Italian sausage and roasted vegetables.
An outstanding non-sausage pasta dish is the linguine carbonara (for me, best ordered with rigatoni noodles) which may be the richest entree on Paisano’s menu. Carbonara is perhaps the richest and creamiest of all Italian pasta sauces, usually made with heavy cream, eggs, pancetta (Italian bacon) and black pepper. Paisano’s version is among the very best in the city, but because it is so rich, it might be advisable to share it with someone you love–someone who perhaps might order the Fettuccini Alla Lucchese. Split these two entrees and you’ll strike a memorable balance of richness and tomato induced greatness.
If you’re of the school that scallops go best with sauces that are as delicate and sweet as the edible bivalves themselves, you might have some trepidation about ordering a dish in which scallops are paired with a spicy, tangy tomato and pepper sauce. You needn’t be if the dish is Paisano’s pan-seared sea scallops which are served atop fresh angel-hair pasta tossed with a spicy tomato and red sweet pepper sauce with a seafood broth and herbs. Each thin strand of the angel-hair pasta is perfectly prepared as are the pan-seared scallops themselves, but it’s the complementary nature of the sweet-tangy-piquant sauce which will surprise you most of all. With discernible notes of pepper piquancy, it’s a sauce which not only goes well with scallops, but with any other pasta or seafood dish.
Fromage fanatics will enjoy the stuffed shells entree most. Four giant pasta shells are stuffed with a trio of terrific cheeses–ricotta, mozzarella and parmesan–and spinach and served with marinara. The cheese blend is tantalizing, a savory blend of mild cheeses that go well together. The marinara sauce enlivens the shells with a tangy, herbaceous profile.
A nice alternative to pasta is a Paisano’s pizza. The restaurant’s dough is made daily and is rolled by hand. It is available with thick or thin crust and is a ten-inch pie. Available toppings include pepperoni, sausage, Canadian bacon, meatballs, anchovies and of course, green chile. A colleague of mine likes to sing “the pizza’s perfect at Paisano’s” but that’s probably because he likes alliteration even more than I do. Paisano’s does serve a very good pizza with nicely charred edges and gooey, melted cheese. Try it with garlic and plenty of that spicy sausage.
The mere mention of Paisano’s homemade desserts might make your mouth water, especially if you’ve ever had one. We’re trying to go through the entire dessert menu to determine which dessert is best, but every time we find one we love, we tend to order it three or four times before moving on to the next dessert on the luscious line-up.
The latest sweet treat to capture our affections is the luscious lemon pudding cake (pictured below) with raspberry sauce. The lemon pudding is lemony, not in the fashion of those made from a box puddings and their obvious artifice. This is made from scratch lemon pudding that will pucker your lips and tease your taste buds. The cake itself offers a sweet contrast that accentuates the tanginess of the lemon pudding while the raspberry trail provides a fruity, sweet complement.
The molten chocolate cake and gelato is fresh baked to order which means you’ll have to wait about ten minutes for it, but it’s well worth the wait. The hot molten chocolate is topped with homemade Italian vanilla ice cream flecked with orange peel for a wonderful taste contrast. It is a decadent way to finish a good meal in Albuquerque’s best Italian restaurant.
In Italian the word “Paisano” means “countryman” which can be either someone who lives in the country or someone from the same country or region. In Albuquerque “Paisano” means Italian food excellence at a restaurant which specializes in doing the right things and has been doing so for nearly four decades.
1935 Eubank, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 28 December 2012
# OF VISITS: 12
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Salsiccia Griglio, Lasagna Frutta Di Mare, Fettuccini Alla Lucchese