Happy (Belated) New Year
With Pazo, the year 2000 finally arrives in Baltimore
Pazo opened a few weeks ago in an abandoned machine shop in the Inner Harbor East neighborhood, on the fringes of Fells Point (1425 Aliceanna St.,  573-0742). It’s an instantaneous and mammoth success, packed night after night with flatteringly lit, happy-to-be-here customers. On weekends, lines form outside just to get into the bar. The tune I hear people whistling on their way out is this: We needed some place like this. Or to quote a wag at my table: The year 2000 has arrived in Baltimore. If the city’s pursuit of creative-class resettlers eventually succeeds, Pazo will become its heritage shrine, the first place that worked so well on such a large scale.
For one thing, it’s gorgeous. The entrance brings you into a vast, swooning lounge area, and it’s the sheer expanse that seems to stagger first-time arrivals. I wandered in here with some friends on a Friday night, thinking I might grab a glass of wine and small plate at the bar. I could barely see the sofas in the middle of the room. If you don’t go in for the crowded lounge scene, do what we did and show up early (before 8 p.m., definitely) on a weeknight and settle on a sofa for an evening of surprisingly affordable wine and myriad small plates. If you go on a weekend, reserve a table on the raised dining level, where the décor and ambiance undergo a subtle shift from urban sleek to bordello chic.
We somewhat reluctantly moved to the dining area from the lounge, where we had already gobbled up a half-dozen tapas, including some small plates of rabbit and veal, which we’d try again with dinner. Thinking about it later, though, I thought that the small-plate experience worked better in the more casual setting, where the food was a secondary concern, sustaining conversation and providing props for intensive people-watching. Once upstairs small-plate management became more of a chore, and once the food became the evening’s focus it began to lose a little of its savor.
Pazo’s menu divides some two-score small plates, ranging in price from $3 for vegetable-based dishes like wilted spinach and roasted potatoes to $8 for grilled prawns and lamb chops, into three long columns—sea, land, and field. Neapolitan pizzas and plates of artisanal choices are on hand, too. The chef, Peter Livolsi, describes the offerings as “Western Mediterranean peasant cuisine,” and the borrowings are from Sicily, Sardinia, Campania, and Catalonia. If the menu had helped us organize our palates around a specific region, its spices, and its textures, our meal might have better kept its pitch. Another solution for navigating the menu: Pazo offers a Grand Table for two ($49), an assemblage of the chef’s signature plates.
Maybe we ordered the best things first. The first two listings under “land” are must-haves, flawless plates of simply constructed rustic fare. Corsican rabbit ($7) tosses strips of tender meat with earthy herbs and wholesome chickpeas. Veal cheeks ($7) is a little masterpiece—melting hunks of braised meat encircled by a spiced pumpkin purée. The thin-crusted, wood-grilled pizzas delighted us—one topped with shaved sausage and fresh arugula ($10), another, the pizza bianca ($10), assembled with capers, pignoli, raisins (no, it works), and fresh soft cheeses. I recommend the grilled lamb chops in salmoriglio sauce ($8), the classic Sicilian concoction for grilled meats and seafood, with their assertively oily, lemony meat tearing easily off the bone. And I’d gladly order again, for its pleasing simplicity, the dish of homemade chorizo and potato ($5) in garlic vinaigrette and, if offered again, a well-tempered fillet of grilled bronzini.
Inevitably, some plates got lost in the shuffle, made indistinct by the sensory overload. Some of these were blameless—an octopus salad ($6), tossed with potatoes, leeks, and paprika; grilled mushrooms ($4) tinted with olive oil flavor. Others were not—namely, a roasted beet salad ($4), topped with crispy pancetta but in want of more citrusy impact from its orange vinaigrette; and an awkward zuppa di pesce ($6).
From our vantage point, our fellow diners seemed to be having a grand night out. But I think when I return to the dining room, I’ll submit myself to the Grand Table idea. Looking back, I’d have been happy just to have ensconced myself in the lounge and grazed throughout the evening.