We’ve never walked into Paul Manno’s when the place wasn’t buzzing, even on a night early in the week, usually a quiet time. But when people have even a brief wait for a table at 9 o’clock on a Tuesday, it tells you something. But buzz will get folks in the door, almost any door, once. It’s the food and the service that bring them back.
While it looks like a strip mall restaurant from the outside, Paul Manno’s interior is cool gray, white and black, with lots of photos providing a slightly tongue-in-cheek view of the Manno family’s Italian heritage. But even Frank Sinatra et al would dine happily, eat his fill and feel right at home with dinner – and so will our vegetarian friends. Sicily, after all, was poor for a long time, a situation that leads to a cuisine with tasty non-meat options. And Sicily is where the family is from; in fact, right now, Paul, Sr., and Concetta, the great cook who taught the younger Paul how to do things just the right way, are in Ragusa celebrating the birth of their first grandchild. (Salut and mazel tov to all!) Paul, Jr., has things perfectly well in hand.
More pleasing is to note that another of our city’s wonderful Italian restaurants is working as well under the hand of the second generation as it did under the first.
So many choices, we muttered to ourselves on our recent visit. The last of the season’s tomatoes in a salad? Pasta fagiole, the classic Italian bean soup? A single canneloni? Joe can never get farther than the caponata, chopped eggplant in the sweet-and-sour style that so reflects the ancient gastronomic heritage of Sicily, with raisins and pine nuts. This is one of his favorite versions, tangy-sweet, a few capers playing tag with the tongue.
Ann succumbed to a half-order of spaghettini con acciughe. Pasta as a first course is common in Italy, she reasoned, and the al dente pasta dressed with olive oil, garlic, a little tomato and white wine and some anchovies was shockingly good. Anchovy fillets cooked briefly in oil will dissolve, leaving only their savor to bless a dish, and that’s exactly what happened here. Absolutely wonderful. Even the half-order was huge; self-control demanded half of the half come home to be fried up in a pasta cake or folded into a fritatta.
Those vegetarian options include an excellent rigatoni arrabiata, spicy-hot with capers, mushrooms and olives, a dish we find difficult to pass up. But we gave in to one of the evening’s specials, superb fettuccine with whole, still-in-the-shell Little Neck clams, a little olive oil, garlic and white wine. The broth from the clams became the sauce, giving the taste of the sea to the pasta, almost as perfectly al dente as the spaghettini. It’s a swell dish. It’s hard to pass up a fine version of veal piccata here, but we were satisfied with cappesante al limone, large sea scallops seared and sauced with lemon and mushrooms. The sweet scallops are a great foil for the lemon juice, and fresh spinach sauteed with garlic and a little tomato was a nice side.
The wine list is long, often expensive with many choices of outstanding labels from excellent years. It’s heavy with Italian offerings, but there are some good values among the hearty reds, ideal companions to the rich sauces.
Italian cheesecake, in the Manno style, provided a new experience for dessert. It is not a fluffy cheesecake, but is extremely light, with the cheesecake sandwiched between two layers of thin, tender yellow cake. It was a style we had not seen before, but it’s an excellent variation, offering a different texture and cutting the innate richness of cheesecake. The strawberries for garnish were unusually good for this time of year, too.
Lots of regulars here, it’s clear from the greetings at the door, and there are athlete sightings on a regular basis. Service is as smooth and well-polished for them, and for newcomers as well. Still, we strongly recommend reservations. No smoking, but we hear that a cigar lounge is due to arrive next door in the space formerly occupied by Simon’s.
75 Forum Center (northwest corner of Olive Blvd. and Woods Mill Rd.), Chesterfield
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair access: Difficult