There's still plenty to admire about Paesanos, the casual but bustling midtown eatery that opened in 1996 – when Kevin Johnson was still a star point guard and, just to show you how things change, "Ask Jeeves" was poised to become the dominant online search engine.
The pizzas are still good, especially the one with spicy marinara and Italian sausage. The pasta plates continue to satisfy, including a lively, comforting fettucine with a creamy cilantro and lime cream sauce. Polenta fries? What a great way to start – crispy, golden brown, full of goodness.
When I moved here in 1999, I was a regular, enjoying the pizzas and pastas that had both flavor and a simple flourish.
While enjoying the food and taking in the energy of the room, I would occasionally look at the vacant, rundown buildings across the street and remark, "Those places have such style. If only someone would do something there, too."
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Someone eventually did. That's where the elegantly appointed and always-crowded Zócalo restaurant is today. Next to it is David English's much-admired Press. Around the corner? 58 Degrees, a popular wine bar and eatery. Mulvaney's, Ginger Elizabeth Chocolates, Devine Gelateria, Lucca, the entire MARRS project.
None existed when Paesanos put down roots.
Midtown today is more alive and more essential, largely due to restaurants. And Paesanos should get partial credit for showing the way.
It continues to show how it's done. Even if the equation and context have changed, Paesanos has remained the same – not in a stubborn, worn-out way, but with poise and pride.
This is a casual eatery that never set out to wow the culinary establishment. It started with good food and decent prices, and with the new, more dynamic and competitive restaurant scene of 2012, only its place in the pecking order has changed.
In the early days, it was a hot spot, a destination. You could look up and spot the Deftones at one table, maybe a visiting Kobe Bryant and friends at another. Linkin Park, Papa Roach, Mike Bibby and his "Team Dime" entourage.
Hipsters, artists, midtowners, suburbanites. They all were there as folks stood waiting for tables and the cooks in the open kitchen frantically tackled all those orders of pizza, pasta, sandwiches and salads.
These days, Paesanos has stuck to its winning formula, tweaking the menu as it made the transition from new hot spot to ol' reliable good spot.
One thing remains clear: Paesanos is still a highly successful restaurant. No restaurant we have visited is consistently this crowded.
How does this happen? We looked at the food. It's reliable, pleasing to the senses and mildly inventive. We looked at the room – it's got the industrial-and-warm combination that has been repeated so often throughout the city it has become a cliché.
Then we checked the prices. Rubbed our eyes and looked again. Wow! For a place that makes much of its food from scratch, has a chef overseeing the kitchen and manages to be good more often than not, the prices are the best in the city.
Really, $10.95? Is that an appetizer? A couple of sliders with some cole slaw?
No, that's the most expensive entree on the menu. For a pretty decent mixed drink, it's $7. The pizza prices are only slightly less impressive – $10.95 for a small, $18.95 for large with 12 slices.
OK, so the execution from night to night can be a bit bumpy. Some of the food can be superb, from something as simple as those polenta fries to a dish such as the "fettucine arrositi" that showcases how multiple ingredients come together with depth and balance on the palate and a velvety mouth feel to the last bite.
The pizzas are a pleasant surprise in this age of artisan-style pies found at Hot Italian, Masullo and OneSpeed. Paesanos holds up, with an array of ingredients, a couple of nice sauces and a crust with just enough chewy texture to satisfy our Neapolitan yearnings.
While we liked the spicy and meaty Sicilian and thought it went well with sangria or beer, we were left wanting with the potato pizza, finding the white sauce and toppings too bland.
The vegetarian pie was a winner, loaded with salty-sweet-bitter flavors from the caramelized onions, peppers, garlic, feta, mozzarella and basil. We just wish the mushrooms were better.
In rare instances, the busy kitchen shoots an air ball. The baked pasta, a meal craved by many regulars, was a big miss, with pasta and melted cheese floating in a soupy sauce that never came together and thickened. With our Modena di Balsamico – angel hair pasta and chicken in a balsamic reduction – our chicken was overcooked and dry.
Still, the cooking is reliable enough at Paesanos that you can close your eyes and point at the pasta portion of the menu. You'll probably be content. Even with the occasional minor flub, a decent meal can still equal a pleasing experience – once you get the check.
Paesanos prices will make you feel stuck in the '90s.
Service is friendly, but it can also be harried. One night, the manager had to step in and help with our table, given the flood of customers (on a Monday).
But on another night, our server was on auto-pilot, bringing me a second glass of riesling after I had ordered a pinot noir.
To compare notes, we stopped in at the newest Paesanos, in Davis (there's yet another in Elk Grove), and found much the same food, a more family-oriented crowd and service that was not quite so overloaded. It was slightly less fun, but slightly more relaxing.
Paesanos in midtown Sacramento is not quite as cool as it used to be. While it never changed, Sacramento did. In that light, Paesanos should be applauded for its enduring success and its lasting influence.
1806 Capitol Ave., Sacramento
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday-Wednesday; 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday; noon to 10:30 p.m. Saturday; noon to 9:30 p.m. Sunday
Full bar? Yes.
Vegetarian friendly? Yes.
So much has changed with the city's dining scene since Paesanos opened 16 years ago. Only the context is different these days, making the impressive price point more appealing than ever at a place that is always busy and satisfying.
Food 1/2 (pretty good)
With an emphasis on pizza and pasta, the menu continues to feature comfort food basics with occasional inventive flourishes. We enjoyed the spicy marinara on one pizza, found most pasta dishes reliably good and encountered only the occasional misstep (a soupy baked pasta). The wine and beer lists are short but appealing, and the mixed drinks are well done and affordable.
Service 1/2 (pretty good)
This place just might be too busy to expect unhurried and personable service. Our servers handled the tables efficiently, though there were a couple of errors along the way.
Ambience 1/2 (very good)
What's that they're handing us? A pager? That's right, even on a Monday night there can be a wait. That's because it's a fun, eclectic, lively place to eat.
Solid food at time-warp prices. That's a winning formula Paesansos seems to have mastered. Dinner for two with drinks can easily be $40 or less.
Noteworthy: There are two other Paesanos – one in Davis, the other in Elk Grove – with similar menus, different music and noticeably different clienteles than the midtown Sacramento spot.