Before you set foot inside Paparazzi, the aroma of wood smoke wafting from the restaurant begins to whet your appetite. Enter, and you'll discover its source: a wood-burning pizza oven, fabricated in Italy and assembled on site by the Modena manufacturer's craftsmen.
Hanging next to the oven is a large black and white photo of John Travolta. At first, the picture seems out of place. A quaint Old World print of a pizzaiolo wielding an 8-foot pizza paddle, maybe. Or a Mediterranean landscape. But John Travolta?
Then you realize the portrait is among dozens of framed candid shots lining the semolina-yellow walls of the contemporary dining room, a gallery of famous faces spanning the decades from the coining of the term "paparazzi" (Marcello Mastroianni) to now (Angelina Jolie).
The theme of the decor is more than just a clever visual reference to the restaurant's name. It also serves notice that Paparazzi is not your typical Italian restaurant.
Changes with seasons
Executive chef Jason Malone's menu changes with the seasons, for starters, showcasing the harvest with a mix of traditional and contemporary fare. Roasted young peppers - one each of red and yellow, stuffed with goat cheese and topped with pine nuts, raisins, capers, basil and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil - are a vibrant highlight of the current antipasti offering.
Grilled artichoke crostini, topped with ricotta and a shower of arugula in a lemon vinaigrette, is another winning starter. So is a salad of shaved fennel, arugula, oranges and pistachio-crusted goat cheese.
If you're craving smoky fare, resist the temptation of "wood roasted prawns wrapped in prosciutto" (the size of the shrimp doesn't merit the name "prawns," much less the $9 price tag for just two). Opt instead for the wood oven-roasted chicken wings, seasoned with rosemary, chiles, lemon and garlic and served in a rustic earthenware baking dish.
Menu skips clichés
Or you could just head straight for the wood-fired pizzas, whose thin, blistery crusts and 10-inch size are just right for a shared starter or a light meal for one. The Napoletana, featuring San Marzano tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, basil and olive oil, is a purist's delight. More elaborate topping combinations range from Funghi (wild mushrooms, taleggio cheese and arugula) to Pancetta (with gorgonzola, onion, pear and balsamic reduction).
The menu describes tagliatelle bolognese as the house specialty, noting that the sauce is made from a 100-year-old recipe. I can't vouch for its pedigree, but I can confirm that the sauce - rich, robust and winey, punctuated with finely diced carrots - is exceptional.
You'll search Paparazzi's entree list in vain for Italian restaurant clichés such as veal marsala and chicken Parmesan. But you will find chicken in parchment and grilled veal hanger steak. There's also a nightly fresh fish special (recent options have included grouper and Scottish salmon).
Take their advice
It pays to listen when your server is reciting those specials, especially when it comes to the two house-made pastas. One of them is invariably ravioli, large, pillowy pockets whose filling might be anything from lobster to cheese. According to Joe Forgione Jr., who owns the restaurant with his father, the ravioli is hands-down the restaurant's best-seller. Having sampled a recent version filled with a voluptuous blend of cheeses and blanketed in mint-pistachio pesto, I see why.
I also understand Joe Jr's. lifelong fondness for the ricotta cheesecake. It's made by his mother, Sherry, who also makes a delightful orange semifreddo on a crushed pistachio crust.
Veterans of the restaurant business, the Forgiones operated restaurants and country clubs in southern Florida before moving to the Triangle to open Paparazzi. Their refreshing take on an Italian restaurant is clearly a welcome addition to the local dining scene, judging by the crowds that frequently fill the dining room.
The wait staff has trouble keeping up with those crowds, a problem that's exacerbated by the fact that some servers are less experienced than others. Given the owners' track record, though, it won't be long before Paparazzi lives up to its slogan, "where every guest is treated like a star."