Dining Review

Paisan's Italian homespun cooking does the family proud

CorrespondentAugust 23, 2012 

  • Paisan’s 1275 NW Maynard Road, Cary 919-388-3033 www.caryitalian.com Cuisine: Italian Rating: *** Prices: $$ Atmosphere: casually romantic, family-friendly Noise level: low to moderate Service: friendly and attentive Recommended: clams Posillipo, stuffed mushrooms, spaghetti with meatballs, zuppa di pesce, cheesecake Open: Lunch and dinner Tuesday-Sunday Reservations: encouraged Other: full bar; accommodates children; modest vegetarian selection ; parking in lot. The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: *  *  *  *  *  Extraordinary *  *  *  *  Excellent. *  *  *  Above average. *  *  Average. *  Fair. The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

The story of Paisan’s – like that of many Italian restaurants in the Triangle – begins in New York and involves family recipes handed down for generations. But this one comes with a twist: Paisan’s is the story not of one family with red sauce in its veins, but two.

Lisa Cerciello met her husband-to-be, David Ferstler, when the two were teenagers living in the same Long Island neighborhood in the ’70s. The Cerciellos and Ferstlers became good friends, gathering on Sundays for home-cooked pasta dinners.

Fast-forward to 1991, when the now-married couple move to Cary to join David’s brother to open a pizzeria called Michelangelo’s. The restaurant is successful, and more locations follow. But Lisa Cerciello dreams of opening something a little more upscale, with a menu centered on the pastas and other homespun Italian fare she fondly recalls from those Sunday dinners.

Cerciello’s dream came to fruition in March with the opening of Paisan’s in Maynard Crossings. To give her childhood memories tangible form, she hired Dave Kelman, a New York native who has worked in Italian restaurants and hotels all over the country.

The chef responded with respectful renderings of those old family recipes, many of which correspond closely with his own. Spaghetti in a meaty tomato “gravy,” for instance, gets even better when you add meatballs – a savory amalgam of beef, veal and four cheeses that’s essentially the chef’s recipe, tweaked by the owner. “I like a little more cheese in my meatballs,” Cerciello explains.

Kelman raises the ante on traditional lasagna, making the noodles from scratch. He also offers a vegetarian version that’s chock-a-block with a veritable garden of roasted vegetables, portobello mushrooms and spinach.

Cheesecake, made from Lisa Cerciello’s grandmother’s recipe, is so good you have to assume the chef’s been sworn to eternal secrecy.

The kitchen does a respectable job turning out the New York-style pizzas that have won the Ferstler branch of the family tree a solid following at Michelangelo’s, too. Choose from 18 toppings (including all the usual suspects) on a thin crust that’s usually – but not always – baked to a proper blistery turn.

Chef Kelman also contributes liberally to the menu from his own repertoire. His Mediterranean riff on a wedge salad substitutes romaine for iceberg and garnishes it with a scattering of kalamata olives, tomatoes, red onions and crumbled feta in balsamic vinaigrette.

Crunchy-crusted fried calamari are another rewarding starter, as are clams Posillipo in a rustic sauce of tomatoes, garlic and herbs enriched with a splash of red wine. Better still are sausage-stuffed mushrooms, simmered in a marsala cream sauce and baked under a blanket of melted fontina.

Purists might find Paisan’s presentation of saltimbocca – which includes both spinach and sage in the layering of veal medallions and prosciutto, baked under a patchwork of fresh buffalo mozzarella, sautéed mushrooms and a brandy cream sauce – a case of gilding the lily. Others will find little to complain about. My only quibble is that, while the portion of veal is more than ample, the accompanying risotto is ladled out with a surprisingly stingy hand.

On the other hand, you can’t fault the generosity of zuppa di pesce, which serves up a bounty of jumbo shrimp, scallops, calamari, tilapia, salmon, mussels and clams in a bright, tomato-y red sauce over linguine.

Paisan’s friendly, attentive wait staff take their cue from the restaurant’s owner. Likely as not, the energetic and gregarious Cerciello will stop by your table at least once to see how you’re doing.

Sinatra and his contemporaries set the mood in a dining room that – in the way that Italian restaurants seem to have mastered – manages to be at once casually romantic and family-friendly.

But the decor avoids the stereotype, thanks in large measure to the framed vintage black-and-white photos on the walls. Wedding pictures and portraits of several generations of the Cerciello and Ferstler families, the photos represent Lisa Cerciello’s desire to make dining at Paisan’s feel like you’re sitting down to one of those Sunday dinners.

Sketch drawings of the family patriarchs who presided over those dinners – and the restaurant’s namesakes, “paisans” Francis Ferstler and Frank Cerciello – are painted on the restaurant’s glass front door. Both passed away in the months leading up to Paisan’s opening, but no doubt both would be proud.

ggcox@bellsouth.net or blogs@newsobserver.com/mouthful

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