Rice, Rice Baby
By Nancy Powell
It’s funny how outward appearances dictate our expectations. On a Saturday evening just before opening, as I’m standing outside Paisano’s gates waiting for the red and yellow pastiche with the washed red brick columns to unfurl its gates, an elderly gentleman gently informs me that the Oriental place across the ways serves great Asian food—as if me with my elegantly sculpted Asian assets couldn’t appreciate “Old World meets New World” Italian on its own merits. Judging by what stands before me, I’m not sure if I should expect kitschy casino-interpreted faux or real deal Italian. The only way to tell is to taste-test what Chef Francesco Di Caudo has prepared for me. And what this charming young Sicilian chef with his chiseled good looks and articulate manner has accomplished is to infuse Italian American cuisine with authentic flavor and flair in the short time that he has assumed stewardship of Paisano’s kitchen.
As a first course, Chef Francesco presents pork belly on a bed of creamy cheese polenta and wild mushrooms and immediately sets high expectations. His belief that the plate becomes of reflection of its master clearly shows; out of the gate, the aromatic and fragrant wine sauce assails the nostrils. Visually stunning, its composition, layers and flavors recall scenes of the serene, Italian countryside. The sous vide cooked pork belly with crispy, golden brown skin is unctuous, and it marries magnificently with the earthy pop of the herbed polenta and mushroom mix. This is bacon the way sophisticates would eat it, each bite a sensual experience of the food’s origins.
Next up Chef Francesco’s sleeve is one of his fall specials, crab ravioli in an heirloom tomato sauce. The taste of the sea, as if the creature jumped out of the sea and into this soft, toothy pastry cocoon for our dining pleasure gratifies, as does the acidic yet sweet burst of the heirloom tomatoes. The dish is almost too beautiful to eat. It’s light, dainty and perfectly suited for late summer dining.
Chefs generally don’t see value in rice as a starring ingredient. “A lot of people say it is filler,” says Chef Francesco. “I think it is a culture.” Rice, as it turns out, happens to be Chef Francesco’s favorite ingredient, akin to “a big piece of white paper where you can write or paint with any preparation . . . where cooks can create.” As if to illustrate what he means by “blank canvas,” Chef Francesco prepares a butternut squash risotto layered with sour cream and caviar, a bright, bold and resplendent masterpiece that is sultry and texturally decadent with its play on salty, sour and sweet as it is a breath and taste of sunshine. The dish does double duty as satisfyingly rustic comfort food.
Chef Francesco’s crowning achievement of the night lies in the osso bucco, a fall-off-the-bone hunk of succulent flesh so luxurious as to slice cleanly through with just a knife. He flavors the marrow, so rich and tangy, with herbs and garlic, and the saffron risotto becomes another testament to Chef Francesco’s ability to make rice sing. The meat’s juices melt into the citrus-scented risotto, making this dish seem more like a double entrée—and a tasty one at that.
No Italian dinner would be complete without a sampling of tiramisu, served with hazelnut crème cookies and fresh raspberries. It’s served in a martini glass, a perfect-sized treat that’s not overly sweet, yet light and creamy enough to end the evening on a very high note.
So the part where appearances can be deceiving? Not all Italian restaurants have to evoke that sense of country rusticity to feel appreciated. In the case of Paisano’s, the color pastiche reflects the joy and vivacity that Chef Francesco brings to his food. After all, good food on a plate is the ultimate reflection of its maker.
Paisano’s Italian Restaurant at the Pechanga Resort & Casino, 45000 Pechanga Pkwy., Temecula, (951) 770-8506; www.pechanga.com. Dinner for two without drinks, $122. AE, D, MC, V.