131 W. Wilson St., 257-3832
11 am-11 pm Mon.-Sat., 4-11 pm Sun. EntrÃes $6.95-$14. Credit cards and checks. Underground parking. Wheelchair accessible.
How popular is the newly relocated Paisan's, which recently reopened, on West Wilson Street after its University Square Mall home got yanked to the ground? At 5:15 on a recent Sunday evening, there was a 50-minute wait for a table, and there wasn't much anyone could do about it. That's because the new Paisan's doesn't take reservations, unless you're booking a very large party, and the policy can feel like a slap of wet fettuccine across the face if you're trying to actually schedule your dinner. The general message: Take your luck or count on arriving for a very early meal.
If the no-res policy is something of a shock, so is the fact that a place this big can fill up so quickly. In fact, Paisan's new home is a cavernous complex of a dining hall. To the right of the foyer is a lounge anchored by a curving bar and manly wooden booths. To the left, running off a long hallway inset with stained glass windows, are narrow side rooms lined with more wooden booths. The whole thing opens up, at the back, to a slightly more formal series of rooms overlooking the lake and punctuated by plunging chandeliers.
If the whole effect ' a butchy take on Belle Epoque ' is true to the original Paisan's, so is the menu. In fact, the menu has been left virtually untouched, and for fans of Paisan's intrepid, weird take on Italian food that will come as a relief. For me, the relief is that the pizzas are as good as ever, and good enough to rate among the best in town. While the kitchen's thin crust turns limp in the center on a large pie, a medium pizza features a crust that holds its shape and pillows up in crackery puffs along the edges.
The deluxe (Italian sausage, mushrooms, mozzarella and your choice of green or hot peppers) is a classic pie, but if you want to avoid the acidic tomato paste that sometimes undercuts Paisan's pizzas, invent your own. Our favorite is a pie spread with pesto, instead of that fiery red tomato paste, and then topped with spicy cheese and pepperoni.
Almost as good are some other Paisan's signature dishes. The Porta salad crowns its unapologetic base of throwback iceberg lettuce with ham, salami, garbanzo beans, green peppers and mozzarella and cheddar cheeses. Tossed with a French blue cheese dressing, it's as rich and addictive as the pizza. Simpler but fine is a chicken Caesar salad, and better is the perennial Garibaldi sandwich ' a loaf of French bread crammed with ham, salami, melting hot spicy cheese, sliced tomatoes and peppers. It makes Subway's sad microwaved hoagies look like mummified hot pockets.
Unfortunately, the menu's homage to its own past means that Paisan's pasta dishes have stayed stuck in their hopelessly goofy, '50s state, and they're all ' what's the word? ' bad. It's hard to say which is the worst. Maybe the kind of limp lasagna (why is the meat so gray?) that your roommate would make on an off night, when she ran out of pasta. Maybe the gummy, overcooked-to-a-pulp SpaghettiO spaghetti, doused in enough dumbed-down tomato sauce and/or Alfredo sauce to turn the dish into a soupy Italian-American chowder. Maybe the uncouth manicotti swimming in a steaming broth of indistinguishable, bubbling cheeses.
All those dishes probably made sense in the age of Kraft dinners, but at a time when even the most half-hearted Midwestern trattoria attempts some salute to authentic Italian cooking, they look both lazy and insulting. If you want linguini, head to Lombardino's, which shows up Paisan's wilted entrÃes with its seasonal, creative, serious pastas.
In the end, though, it probably doesn't matter, at least to anyone holding a slice of that fine pizza in one hand and a meaty Garibaldi in the other. And judging by the tireless crowds, maybe those pastas have come to seem like a form of tradition in their own addled right.