As my dining companion and I arrived at Fifth Avenue South’s Pazzo! Cucina Italiana, we took a moment to admire the restaurant’s chic new look.
My friend enjoys a lush, classic dining experience, and he marveled at the dark wood and elegant lighting. When the hostess led us to the center of the room to a table outfitted with two chairs that were regal in both size and plushness, he lowered himself into one and beamed up at me. There’s nothing like a coat of fresh glam to make a favorite and familiar restaurant feel even more special, and Pazzo—one of the first restaurants to open on Naples’ busy downtown thoroughfare 23 years ago, and the avenue’s longest-running Italian restaurant—has done well by its recent makeover, which shuttered the space for more than three months.
And it’s not just the décor that’s been revamped. The menu, too, has a fresh angle with updated modern dishes alongside the Italian classics that made Pazzo famous. We began our meal with a bowl of Tuscan bean soup ($10) and a plate of butternut squash ravioli ($14). The pitch-perfect soup incorporated a clear seafood broth studded with white beans and steamed clams offset by notes of sharp escarole. And the butternut squash ravioli was flawless, as well—each bite a combination of delectable homemade pasta, sweet butternut filling, notes of nutmeg and the bright acidic tang of sun-dried tomatoes. I’ve had many versions of this dish over the years, but Pazzo’s take stands out.
Between courses, my companion ordered a second glass of Smith and Hook cabernet sauvignon ($17) and settled deeper into his chair.
“We might be here a while,” he cautioned our waitress.
She smiled patiently. “Stay as long as you like.”
He managed to rouse himself for our main courses, a pan-seared branzino with a sambuca scampi of lobster and shrimp ($44) for him and the pappardelle with wild boar Bolognese ($23) for me. His dish was expertly prepared, each bite of fish firm and fresh, the lobster succulent and sweet, the sauce a graceful blend of olive oil, butter and lemon. As for the pappardelle, there are few things in life finer than homemade pasta, and the kitchen at Pazzo is especially adept at turning theirs out. The wild boar Bolognese that accompanied the noodles was delicious, if very oregano-forward. But, I’m assuming the oregano, along with the caramelized cipollini onions, must be essential to balancing the strong flavor of the boar.
By the end of the meal, long after most other tables had left for the evening, my friend and I were still tucked cozily into our seats. We nibbled at a shared plate of biscotti and shared the glass of chocolate dessert wine that accompanied it ($15). The night was already sinking into memory as a special one, and my sense is that the newly renovated Pazzo is the kind of place where this will happen often.
853 Fifth Ave. S., Naples, 434-8494, pazzoitaliancafe.com. Open Sunday through Thursday, 4:30-9:30 p.m., and Friday and Saturday, 4:30-10 p.m. Wheelchair-accessible. Reservations recommended.