Caffe di Pagliacci lives on, with some minor changes.
The new owner, John Garcia, is a former sous-chef who plans only minor changes in a place that has been a quintessential neighborhood restaurant for three decades. The prices are reasonable, the service is friendly, and the food is good, if not adventurous.
But no one buys a restaurant without having his or her own ideas, so Garcia says he’ll make some subtle changes, while acknowledging that if he does too much “the neighborhood regulars would kill me.”
Of the changes Garcia has made so far, there have been winners and losers.
The most obvious misstep is eliminating the house salad, whose pinkish creamy Italian dressing looks like Thousand Island and always came with the entrée. It has been replaced by a slightly larger salad that costs $3.
Another problematic though harmless change is the addition of dinners-for-two. The choices for the couples-only meals are marinated and grilled meats with fresh vegetables over risotto ($38 for two); shrimp, clams, calamari, fish and lobster steamed in a spicy tomato sauce, over cappellini ($40); and risotto topped by meat, vegetables and herbs ($36).
Garcia figures that because many of the regulars are couples, they might enjoy sharing the same dishes. That is, however, exactly the opposite of what my wife and I prefer, even when we’re not trying to sample dishes for a review.
A boneless center-cut pork chop ($16), stuffed with proscuitto, bacon, red pepper and bread, came with a sun-dried tomato sauce that wasn’t enough to rescue a dry risotto.
The saltimbocca ($16), thin slices of veal sautéed in butter, wine and herbs, and topped with proscuitto and provolone over pasta, was a bit heavy on the Dijon mustard, which gave it a slightly sour taste.
On the plus side was Garcia’s use of fresh mussels and clams — the later of which always used to taste as if they came out of a can. Replacing them with fresh littlenecks markedly improved what has always been my favorite dish here, vongole allegro — clams with grilled proscuitto tossed with linguini — whose price was bumped up a couple of bucks to $13. What didn’t need to be increased, however, was the garlic, which overcame the dish and was part of my aroma for the weekend.
Another winner is an appetizer of sautéed portobello mushrooms and Italian sausage ($6) rolled in pasta that looked and tasted like cannelloni without the cheese.
Regular pasta entrees, a trademark of the old Pagliacci, remain a bargain at $9 to $11, though less so because of the absence of the salad.
Garcia says he eliminated the free salad because many of them were returned unfinished (a good reason) and because too many diners got filled up and passed on the desserts (not so good a reason).
No one should pass up the desserts, which are made in-house and remain a trademark of the restaurant. Garcia also wants to encourage a tradition that has slipped in recent years — stopping by for a late cappuccino and dessert. Given the tastiness and portions of the tiramisu and chocolate sponge cake, it’s a good idea.So while the mural on the alley wall still says “there’s a little Italian in everything we make,” those names sound Puerto Rican and Scottish.
Garcia, who is keeping his day job with the city, is assisted by another longtime employee, chef and manager Todd McKinney.
Even so, Garcia promises that the spirit of former owner DiCapri will live on, but he might freshen up the décor, though it has served the place well, despite those uncomfortable, cramped booths. The exterior will remain the same, because of a special-use permit that prohibits changes to the building, which is more than 100 years old.
When Garcia finally settles on a new menu, he might think about making it more legible than the current one, whose typeface and size are difficult for us old-timers to read in the dining room’s subdued lighting.
But these are minor complaints that tweaking over time can fix. The good news is that Pagliacci is alive and well, which is enough to put smiles on those clown faces. S
Caffe di Pagliacci ($$$)
214 N. Lombardy St.
Dinner only: Tuesday through Saturday 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m. (10:30 p.m. on weekends).
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