In its early years, it wasn’t unheard of to see dinner guests dancing on the bar top or servers giving patrons back rubs, said Skip Quillen, who opened Pazzo! Cucina Italiana with his partner Tom Gilbertson in 1995.
“Pazzo! was always meant to be, like the name itself, a little crazy,” Quillen said, which is what Pazzo means in Italian. “We didn’t want to be a totally traditional Italian restaurant, and we still hold to that to this day.”
“We take classic dishes and classic flavors and give them our own unique twist.”
It was a surprise to everyone when the restaurant lived up to its name, not only for the cuisine, but for the atmosphere, and the number of patrons who would flock to the restaurant night after night.
In homage to its auspicious beginning, Pazzo! plans to celebrate its 20th birthday in style, offering guests a taste of their favorite dishes from opening year at the same prices they were back in November 1995!
From Nov. 1 to Nov. 7, Pazzo! will offer the special anniversary “throwback” menu to honor the first menu it ever served. Plus, the restaurant will also throw a big bash to show appreciation for the way the Naples community has helped it thrive over the years.
As an example, the Veal Italian Meatloaf ($11.95) dressed with Barolo wine gravy is one entrée from Pazzo!’s first menu that diners still request to this day, which will be offered on the anniversary menu. Other dishes include Vognola Fresca ($4.50), a fresh soup with clams, tomato, escarole and Tuscan bean, as well as the Ravioli Di Casa ($5.95), Pazzo!’s famed roasted butternut squash ravioli topped with prosciutto, fresh sage, basil mascarpone and a lemon-butter sauce.
But while it honors its past, Pazzo!, the oldest Italian restaurant on Fifth Avenue South, has kept its eye on innovation over the years and offers diners something new to taste and experience each time they visit. In the beginning, the restaurant offered bistro-esque fare that was more casual and simple, and now it’s more sophisticated, but still very affordable, Quillen said.
“I think of Pazzo!, when it opened, as kind of like a teenager,” he said. “She was a little wild and crazy in her early days, but now that Pazzo!’s matured, she’s got the best years of her life still ahead of her. She’s evolved and is a bit more sophisticated, and carries those crazy memories of her early years with her still.”
Today, the restaurant’s wild roots influence the menu, by offering an ever-changing and exciting cuisine. It’s one way Pazzo! has maintained its status as Southwest Florida’s best Italian restaurant.
“Pazzo! is still a little crazy today because we have a small kitchen and it’s pretty much run by four line cooks, and we prepare about 12 dishes at a time – from braised octopus to osso buco,” said Eugenio “Mikey” Tinajero, executive chef at the restaurant. “The variety makes it intense, so when we get busy it’s quite the show.”
It makes dinner service at the restaurant a rush for the chef and cooks, Tinajero said. Traditional items like the rabbit cacciatore, a rabbit dish stuffed with homemade Italian sausage and braised in a cacciatore sauce, exemplify the restaurant’s vision to always create something new to taste, even if it’s familiar.
But the chef team will experiment with interesting ingredients, such as squab and lamb neck on the menu once season starts.
“It’s authentic in the sense that we make all the pasta and our sauces by hand, but we do a lot of seafood, steaks, pork chops and veal dishes too,” he said. “We make everything the old fashioned way – we’re artisans in the kitchen, but we offer flavors and unique dishes people can’t find anywhere else.”
It’s something the Naples community has loved about the restaurant from the first.
Locals and visitors to Naples saw something at Pazzo! they really got behind, and their support is what’s made the restaurant successful over the past 20 years, Quillen said.
“I feel very proud of it,” he said. “At the time it was very risky, and my partner, Tom Gilbertson, and I threw everything we had into it to make it work. There’s always been something very special about Pazzo!”