Nearly 10 years old, Pazo (1425 Aliceanna St.,  534-7296, pazorestaurant.com) has reached what could be considered midlife in the restaurant world—no small achievement in a city that has seen dining establishments come and go and in an economy that has ravaged the pockets of both customers and service purveyors. To its credit, Pazo has remained consistent in offering nuanced food (mostly small plates) prepared by a creative hand (even if that hand has changed over the years). Its wine list, if pricey, is what folks these days like to call “well-curated”: It is a very smart offering of mostly under-the-radar Italians. And the dining space still occasions a second glance around, as it so little resembles any other city dining room with its warehouse-meets-the-Inquisition pastiche of iron works, candles under glass, and sweeping drapes. Walking into Pazo still feels as if you are somewhere.
Yet a Saturday night at Pazo reveals how a decade-long run can be a marathon. On the second level, a handful of chairs within sight range and missing patches of veneer could only charitably be called distressed, and near the bar, the seams of the carpet are visible. Service vacillates between unpolished but well-meaning and blasé (the hosts in the front linger so long before approaching guests and act with such coolness, one wonders if they really want to seat you at all); prices belie portion sizes; and a confusing demarcation zone exists between bar, lounge, and restaurant. As the evening surges forward and the bass of club music creates a heavy pulse, the night becomes less about food and more about making oneself heard. This version of Pazo feels unresolved. Is it a serious restaurant or is it a lounge with good, albeit expensive, food?
Because the food can be very fine here. The menu, newly transitioned into a showcase for the cuisine of southern Italy under the direction of executive chef Julian Marucci, who also helms Foreman-Wolf’s Cinghiale, is turning out some delightful small (and sometimes smaller) plates.
Take coppa spiedini ($6), the tiniest of baby zucchini, small as a woman’s pinky finger, wood grilled, sprinkled with basil confetti, and wrapped in coppa, where the faint hint of anise in the basil plays nicely with the spice of the meat. Or a single, lovely arancini (an arancino?) ($5), whose crisp outer portion of rice holds a moist center of veal ragu scented with saffron and a splash of citrus. Pairing slightly charred wood grilled octopus ($11) with tiny cubes of smoked potatoes is evidence that sometimes more is more, where a creamy dab of burrata ($9) is all delicious understatement. House cured sardines ($9) are nicely tart and just darn pretty, the plate an arrangement of silver slivers in the pastel green and pink of pickled lettuce cups with radishes.
A server advises before ordering that small plates are indeed small, but in the greater world of small plates, there were no surprises here. Would another rice ball have been welcome to make the plate plural as advertised? Naturalmente. But at this point in the American evolution of tapas, generosity in small plates is a generous surprise rather than a reality.
But generosity—or at least fairness—in entrees is still an expectation, and that same word of warning about portion size could accompany entree orders, too. But I’m getting ahead of myself. A note of explanation. Pazo’s menu is divided into several sections: stuzzichini (or snacks), Pazo’s version of small plates; pizza; and prezzo fisso, a three-course prix fixe option with a choice of antipasti, pasta, and a “pesce or carni” entree. Additionally, pastas can be ordered in half or whole portions (prices for the former are roughly doubled for the latter). Entrees, which range from $25 for wood-grilled lamb steak to $30 for Cheekstone Farms hangar steak, can be ordered separately as well. Though a prix fixe menu often signals a bargain, here the whole prix fixe is $45, only $10 less than the sum of the highest-priced offering of each of the three courses.
All that said, it still comes as a surprise when a diner orders the $30 hangar steak a la carte, asks to split it because, presumably, it is an entree-sized portion, and what arrives is two very small slices of beef atop a small tangle of onions and mushrooms on each of two gigantic plates. (A full entree would yield four slices, one presumes.) It is absurd, except of course, that it’s not. When the issue is raised (kindly and diplomatically) with waitstaff, and it is suggested that as with the small plates, diners might be encouraged not to share an already-modest entree portion, there is no response, no offers to make things right, to call a manager. The server, who earlier could not give an accurate account of the difference between the size of the pasta orders (Enough for one? Two? A full plate? Number of ounces?) simply melts away into the dining room, never again to be seen or heard. Later, when a manager casually stops by the table on a wander across the room, he is questioned about the steak, and he explains that portions are small because they are part of a prix fixe. This feels disingenuous. If entrees can be ordered separately, shouldn’t they not be portioned as if they were part of a prix fixe? The squid ink calamarata ($25 for large portion), a fresh but ultimately underwhelming mélange of house-made noodles, clams, tomatoes and basil, and wood-grilled branzino ($27) served with a slip of a potato cake, were modest, but not ridiculous. A diner could have been mostly satisfied with them if they hadn’t shared their meal with the rest of the table. This is disappointing.
Pazo rallies post-meal with desserts that are surprisingly generous and thoughtfully garnished. The pistachio Sicilian gelato that accompanies the olive oil chocolate cake ($9) should be the model for all gelato—more nuts, less sugar—and a tart citrus salad gives a welcome zest to frozen coconut semifreddo ($9).
The challenge at Pazo—beyond portions, beyond prices, beyond missed coffee orders, green staff, and confusion over reservations—is really just a matter of ethos. Pazo has the coolness of a club where strangers can meet rather than the warmth of a restaurant where regulars are welcome. This is all well and good, and some stuzzichini and a glass of something fabulous can suffice on a given occasion. Yet if Pazo is going to function as a fine-dining destination, premium food deserves premium service and a $250 dinner for four (before tip) shouldn’t leave you hungry at the end of it.
Pazo is open Monday through Thursday 5pm to 10pm, Friday and Saturday 5pm to1 am, and sunday 5 pm to 9 pm.Copyright © 2015, Baltimore City Paper