Have you longed for some real Italian retro? Missing those old-time murals of Italian scenery? Want wine bottles with woven raffia around the base? Need somewhere that has family-style dining? Look no further than Paisano's.
Since 1984, this inconspicuous eatery off Nicholasville Road has served Italian- American food to loyal regulars. That commitment obviously has worked. Time has stood still here: no truffle oil, no bottarga, no difficult pronunciations or unfamiliar dishes. Paisano's has stayed the course. Wait long enough, and what is old will be new again.
For that reason alone, I like Paisano's.
Not that every single dish makes sense to me. It was with a combination of glee and shame that I ordered the starter of fried penne pasta, cooked quills dipped into salty batter and then hot oil. They took some pulling apart to dip into the little dish of house marinara, a sweet, tangy sauce with an oregano punch. This starter is fusion at its oddest: southern United States meets East Coast ethnic; it is so specific that I can only suggest you try it, just to say you have.
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If, like me, you're more inclined to allow pasta to stay in its rightful place as a first course, order the classic, if predictable, antipasto of lettuce, tomatoes, olives, artichoke hearts, shredded carrots and red cabbage, and pinwheels of salami with mozzarella. Because this meal-size salad has a tart vinaigrette, use the house's olive oil dipping sauce with garlic and oregano to both amend the dressing and tenderize the salty rolls that will have shown up almost immediately.
There is also minestrone soup that, lacking traditional pasta, is more a simple vegetable soup, loaded with potatoes, cabbage, onions and long string beans. But it is nonetheless warming and delicious, and if you sprinkle it with Parmesan cheese, you can almost believe it's the real deal.
Pace yourself, however, because entrees are generous and include soup or salad.
The veal Marsala uses cutlets rather than thinner escalopes, making it just a bit too thick to be fork-tender. Its rich wine sauce is subtle and delicate, despite the fortified wine, allowing the flavors of the sliced mushrooms and the meat to come through. Side garnishes of fried zucchini and potatoes were the ideal complements.
Paisano's also does a nice job with the fillet of salmon napped with lemon-wine-butter sauce. It was cooked to flaky perfection and served with a medley of sautéed cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, yellow squash and zucchini.
I have only one real problem with Paisano's: More is not always more.
For example, the fish also was served with a side of spaghetti in marinara sauce. Now, no matter how good the marinara sauce is — and Paisano's is quite good — it has culinary friends but a few enemies. Paired with hearty meats and sausages, for instance, it shines, but it is not compatible with seafood in lemon sauce. If you ask, Paisano's probably will work on a substitution. It has some of the nicest service in Lexington.
A similar bit of excess occurs at dessert with tiramisu. Absolutely terrific coffee-soaked ladyfingers, fluffy creamy mascarpone and a dusting of cocoa powder needed no assistance from the superfluous drizzle of chocolate syrup. Naturally, such things are matters of taste, but if you're sharing, get a small amount of syrup on the side so you can first experience tiramisu as it was meant to be.
Such decisions aside, Paisano's remains as unpretentious as they come. It's been that way for almost 30 years, and I wager it will be for 30 more.
Address: 2417 Nicholasville Rd., between Pasadena Dr. and Dennis Dr.
Phone: (859) 277-5321
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Mon.-Sat. Closed Sun.
Other: Parking lot. Vegetarian options. Family-friendly. Antipasti, $5.95-$14.95; soups and salads, $1.95-$8.95; pastas (soup or salad included), $8.95-$13.95; pizzas, $8.95-$19.95 (additional toppings: $1.95 each); entrees, $13.95-$21.95; side dishes, $1.50-$4.50; desserts, $3.25-$4.50.