For more than a decade after chef Paul Zoccola bought out founding partner Benny Lubrano, Zoccola was happy to continue operating the restaurant – Lubrano’s – that the two had opened in 2001 in a Morrisville strip mall.
Zoccola, a native of Naples who came to the United States when he was 17, was already a veteran chef by the time he moved to the Triangle from New Jersey. At Lubrano’s, he quickly earned a loyal following for his New York-style pizzas, traditional pasta dishes and other Italian and Italian-American specialties.
Then, in 2014, another Italian restaurant called Lugano opened just a couple of miles away in Cary. It wasn’t long before Zoccola began hearing that people were confused by the two restaurants’ similar names. It was time, he decided, to put his own name – the one he’d been born with – on the sign above the entrance. Last October, he opened the doors to Paolo’s on 54.
The name wasn’t the only change. The dining room got a makeover, too, with a more contemporary look – but still casual enough to bring the kids – and a full bar. The chef also took the opportunity to update his menu with a few modern twists on his native cuisine.
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The eggplant tower appetizer, for one, lives up to its name with a high-rise architecture of alternating layers of breaded eggplant, house-made fresh mozzarella and roasted red peppers, finished with a drizzle of balsamic glaze.
Salmon basilicata, a pastel pastiche of pink fish and basil-tinged lemon cream sauce, is one of a handful of seafood dishes that the chef has added to the menu. Seafood fra diavolo – shrimp, scallops and clams over the pasta of your choice in a spicy marinara sauce – is another. The fra diavolo lived up to its piquant promise when I ordered it recently, and the pasta was cooked to a satisfying al dente, although I’d hoped to get more than two clams, two scallops and a half dozen shrimp of middling size for $18.
I have no quibbles with another newcomer to the menu: chicken Lydia, a rustic dish that buries thin cutlets of boneless breast beneath an avalanche of roasted potatoes, spinach, fresh mozzarella and roasted red peppers in a rich, lemony sauce. Or with risotto alla Paolo, an occasional special that adds a colorful splash to the regular offering in the form of green peas, petals of prosciutto and shaved Asiago cheese scattered across a canvas of risotto in a white wine sauce.
While these menu additions give it a fresh feel to match the restaurant’s new name and decor, the core of the offering remains the traditional Italian fare that returning Lubrano’s regulars will recognize.
You’re still welcomed with a complimentary basket of garlic knots straight from the oven, served with a small dish of warm marinara sauce, not long after you’re seated. As you’re munching on the garlic knots and perusing the starter offering, you’ll be pleased to see that all your old favorites are still there, from fried zucchini to an antipasto platter of Italian meats and cheeses with homemade pickles and toasted crostini. Bruschetta have gotten an upgrade in the form of fresh mozzarella that now join the diced tomato, garlic and basil in the topping mix.
The number of available pizza toppings has grown to 30, including the likes of prosciutto, artichokes, cremini mushrooms, feta cheese and roasted vegetables in addition to the usual suspects. But the crust is still the same thin New York style that you’ve come to expect here.
Pasta dishes, formerly offered on a mix-and-match list of pasta shapes and sauces, are now presented in a more traditional format under three headings: The Basics (nearly a dozen options, from spaghetti and meatballs to penne alla vodka); The Classics (including puttanesca, carbonara and four variations on the ravioli theme), and From the Oven (eggplant parmigiana, lasagna, baked ziti and the like). You can still count on al dente (if not always sufficiently drained) pastas and hearty portions of baked dishes.
In addition to the new seafood offering, entree options include the familiar variations on the theme of chicken or veal scaloppini: piccata, marsala, francese and saltimbocca. Choose the version you like (I’m partial to the francese and piccata), but be advised that the veal is unusually tender here. If you’re looking for something heartier, then pork Vesuvio (stuffed with cheese and bacon, served in an herb cream sauce) should do the trick.
Nine months after opening with a fresh face and a new name, Paolo’s on 54 is still something of a work in progress. Turnover among the front-of-house staff is making for a widely varying level of service, and the new bar won’t live up to its goal of adding to the restaurant’s appeal until it gets its act together.
In the meantime, the food remains the main draw at the restaurant that was reimagined last year as Paolo’s on 54. And given the track record of the restaurant’s namesake chef, it’s a reasonable bet that, in a few years’ time, people will forget that the place was ever called Lubrano’s.
101-500 Keybridge Drive, Morrisville
Rating: ☆☆ 1/2
Atmosphere: casual, contemporary
Noise level: moderate
Service: widely variable
Recommended: pizza, chicken Lydia, eggplant parmesan, veal dishes
Open:Lunch and dinner daily.
Other: full bar; accommodates children; good vegetarian selection; patio; 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.