Enjoy small plates on a grand scale at Pazo

In city's newest hot spot, tapas menu overflows with rich, spicy pleasures

Sunday Gourmet

February 13, 2005|By Elizabeth Large | By Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Tony Foreman and Cindy Wolf know how to stay on top of the trends. With Pazo, their newest venture, the owners of Charle-ston, an upscale New American restaurant, and Petit Louis, a French bistro, have now entered the tapas fray.

The small plate concept has been touted as the way we Americans prefer to eat now. Actually, it's the way I prefer to drink now: that is, with high-protein, high-fat nibbles to absorb the alcohol. It may sound old-fashioned, but I still enjoy dinners that are, well, dinners and involve lots of fresh vegetables.

That doesn't mean I didn't love sitting in Pazo's handsome and comfortable lounge, sipping wine with my husband and friends, eating too many sea-salted almonds and indulging in one of the finest pizzas I've had in many a moon. You could taste the wood smoke in the crust, and the topping of grilled eggplant, sweet red peppers, fresh mozzarella and green olives was nothing short of fabulous.

The open kitchen is overseen by executive chef Peter Livolsi, whose inspiration is his Sicilian heritage. The food is described as western Mediterranean peasant cooking, although you'll have a tough time convincing me that western Mediterranean peasants eat sesame seed tuiles as table bread. They are a bad idea, but they are about the only bad idea we came across at Pazo.

This is not a menu influenced by the government's new dietary guidelines. Weighted toward rich, garlicky meats and shellfish, it features bold flavors in miniature portions. Even the vegetables are loaded down with olive oil, sea salt, and pine nuts. Pazo's idea of a salad is three endive leaves filled generously with chevre and half a segment of blood orange. Rustic cheeses, fatty and rich, have a commanding presence on the menu. No worries. You can justify indulging by saying these are just small plates.

Some will be confounded rather than enchanted by the variety of choices. (My friend said, "Wow, there are a lot of appetizers here!" before we broke it to him that there were no main courses.) For them, there is Pazo's Grand Table for Two ($49).

This is a sampling of the restaurant's signature dishes, the best of which are the grilled items, with their appealing undercurrent of wood smoke. Pork ribs, meaty and tender, have a garlicky kick, but it's the smoke that really sets them off. This is true of the tender rings of squid, the grilled mushrooms, and even a fine eggplant puree, dolled up with pomegranate seeds and diced cucumber.

To balance the grilled dishes' artful simplicity, there's an elaborate winter plate of braised veal cheeks in a dark, potent gravy over pumpkin and potato puree. A hot chickpea pancake has an appealing finishing touch, a chilled onion marmalade. Shrimp in garlic and tomato sauce seem a bit ordinary in comparison. Homemade pasta sports a hearty pork and veal meat sauce with lots of salty pecorino cheese -- all in small scale, of course.

There are desserts, like the cannoli filled with sheep's milk ricotta (more tangy and less sweet than the usual filling), but all you really need at this point is a bit of the homemade fruit granita and a cup of the restaurant's good coffee.

The staff is excellent at timing the food, bringing out a dish or two at first and adding the next as you finish. When it's crowded, there's probably more of a wait, but why would you come here if you were in a hurry to leave?

We started off in the lounge even though our table was ready, just because it seemed so cozy to curl up on one of the curved banquettes near the open kitchen and the warmth of the wood-burning oven. This is where I would stay the next time, although it would be awkward to deal with anything needing a fork here because the tables are so low. This is the kind of food that's best eaten while sitting at a bar. We moved upstairs after we finished our pizza; our table was handsomely set with cloth napkins and sparkling glassware, but it seemed a little formal for casual noshing.

Around 10 p.m. the music is cranked up a notch. Then quiet conversation gives way to high energy -- noise if you're over 40 -- and you won't be able to appreciate the surroundings because of the crush of bodies. That would be a shame. The location, once a factory that manufactured boilers and other machinery, is impressive. The soaring ceiling and industrial chic skeleton are still there, transformed by Patrick Sutton and Associates into a tapas bar for the hip with plush materials, wrought iron, tiles, oversized urns, and a mezzanine.

We went early because we had been forewarned. Pazo is Baltimore's newest hot spot; and getting a table, say, at 8:30 p.m. on a Saturday is practically impossible. Even with reservations, you may have to wait to be seated. It looks as if Baltimore's First Restaurant Couple has another hit on their hands.


Food: ***

Service: ***1/2

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 1429 Aliceanna St., Fells Point

Hours: Open nightly 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.

Prices: Tapas: $4-$8, pizza: $9-$12, tasting menu for two, $49

Call: 410-534-7296

Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

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