Paciarino opened in 2008 and the restaurant has been met with a great deal of praise, with positive reviews in many regional publications. I have dined there about a half dozen times and whenever I go the place is crowded. This is impressive since perhaps surprisingly, there are quite a few Italian restaurants in Portland against which it competes. Owners Enrico Barbiero and Fabiana de Savino are originally from Milan and they make their pastas and sauces in-house and sell them through the restaurant.
The restaurant has two slogans that I think convey the attitude of the restaurant. The first is “Eat Well…Live Long,” and the second is “From Milano to Maine.” The former alludes to a cheery disposition that pervades the restaurant and is one of the reasons why I’m always drawn to return. Meanwhile, the latter speaks to what I’ve always seen as a European cultural bias expressed by the restaurant, which is reinforced through the menus, website, etc. In their attempt to be as “authentic” as possible, I think Paciarino tries to bring Italy to Maine without actually integrating with the Maine culture. Although there is sometimes a lobster special, there is generally little incorporation of Maine/New England ingredients. Certainly, it’s great that the owners are proud of their heritage, but their almost complete disregard for the New England environment precludes Paciarino from being one of my favorite restaurants. Still, the cuisine and service have always been quite good and I took advantage of a recent Groupon offer and went there with my mom for dinner.
We were warmly greeted by the hostess and seated at one of the center two-tops. There were two notable characteristics concerning the clientele: first, almost everyone was using a Groupon; and second, people were very dressed up. This was surprising given the restaurant’s price point but refreshing to see. Paciarino operates at an expedited pace that is generally not my preference but more than acceptable given their price point and the fact that they are up-front about their need to have two seatings a night. The menu was familiar although the seafood ravioli seemed to have been removed. There was a special with ravioli and walnut pesto that sounded interesting. To me, though, the most notable aspect of the menu is an Italian cultural chauvinism that I don’t care for. An example of this is the spaghetti dish, which says: “it is suggested without parmesan on top…but this is America…so this is the only concession that we will make!” I understand that this is written in good humor, but I still find a distasteful cultural superiority in the menu rhetoric, as though they were educating Mainers about Italy.
Although the ravioli special was interesting, my mom and I each ordered the same items: the green salad and the ravioli Bolognese. We also split the bruschetta. The menu prices are very reasonable, and this is one of the reasons why I’m always compelled to return. In general, I’m not a big fan of Italian cuisine and I’m never willing to commit the money to do Italian ‘fine dining.’ When it comes to fine dining, the four course, antipasti-primi-secondi-dessert format just doesn’t appeal to me as much as a more varied tasting menu structure. In fact, if the main course prices were even $5 higher, I probably wouldn’t return to Paciarino. For me, it’s the perfect Groupon restaurant. I think that for most people, Groupons serve a purpose that’s similar to Restaruant Weeks,as people use them to go to restaurants that would ordinarily be too expensive. The problem with going to fine dining restaurants using a Groupon or during Restaurant Week is that they usually involve a truncated version of the experience. Meanwhile, buying a Groupon for Paciarino doesn’t result in this problem; the restaurant is already so minimalist that there are no corners to cut, and I can have a meal that’s representative of the restaurant with little financial commitment.
The bread service was the usual foccaccia drizzled with nice olive oil. It wasn’t very necessary in light of the fact that we’d ordered bruschetta, but it was useful for sopping up the sauce from our pasta dishes. The salad is something I order on each visit and its generous portion, shaved parmesan, and balsamic vinegar does a nice job of priming the palette.
In the past, I have been very impressed with the bruschetta, but what we received was lackluster. The three varieties were: diced raw tomatoes, marinara sauce, and olive oil with sea salt. The olive oil one was too similar to the regular bread service, while the marinara had a one-note taste and seemed like little thought had gone into it. The olives were okay but did not serve any real purpose. One aspect of Paciarino’s cuisine that is lacking is their use of vegetables, and the bruschetta is one dish that would have benefitted from some creative vegetable combinations.
The main course was basically the reason I go to Paciarino: the “Ravioli Ricotta e Spinaci alla Bolognese.” It is topped with fresh parmesan and served in colorful plates that add an appealing dose of kitsch to the restaurant. In fact, the salad bowls have the same playful style. The tomato sauce was smooth and did not have the acrid taste one finds in many red sauces in Maine—altogether, an outstanding dish.
For dessert we shared the tiramisu, which we order on every visit. In the past, it has been served on a plate but they now serve it in a wine glass. Aesthetically, I found this presentation to be hideous and infantile—like what one would find at Friendly’s or Denny’s. A boy at a nearby table ordered the tiramisu for dessert and the presentation was more appropriate for someone his age. Also, from an ingredient standpoint, the vertical serving vessel made it so that the liqueur fell to the bottom. Overall, it didn’t taste ‘bad’ but was still a disappointment.
This was another pleasing meal at Paciarino and with the Groupon, the bill was incredibly low. The dessert notwithstanding, there was nothing different about this meal vis a vis past ones—and this is exactly what I look for in a restaurant at this price point. The execution on the ravioli is consistently excellent, the prices are very reasonable, and the restaurant operates almost like a machine. This has its advantages and disadvantages; there is absolutely nothing challenging about the cuisine, but what it loses in drama it gains in consistency. It is the rare restaurant that I gain appreciation for after repeated visits. I wouldn’t choose Paciarino for a special occasion, but it is quite pleasing when appreciated on its own merits.