Cuoco Pazzo means "Crazy Chef" in Italian, and while the name conjures up images of Roberto Benini dashing about frantically in a chef's toque, flinging bowls of pasta everywhere, there's nothing all that crazy about the place. It's the latest foray of restaurateur Gary Langevin, who was previously behind Bada Bing, La Fontana, and Bella Napoli in West Ashley and has now brought his own style of Italian cuisine over to Mt. Pleasant.
The storefront in the Fairmount Shopping Center — the former home of A Culinary Art Company — has been transformed into a room resembling one of those comforting little Italian-American joints in Boston's North End. The walls are a muted goldenrod, adorned with framed pictures and a huge Mauzan art deco poster for Maccheroni Pianigiani. High above, the ceiling is painted black and long dried branches stretch along the gridwork that once held dropped ceiling tiles.
The room is small, with a tiny bar in the back corner next to the door to the kitchen. The dozen tables are packed in so tight that there's barely any room to stand inside the front door as you wait to be greeted, but once you are seated it feels more cozy than cramped.
It all seems to promise a good, solid meal, and it sets one's expectations pretty high.
Bold lettering on Cuoco Pazzo's front door proclaims "Authentic Italian Cuisine," and, as if to quell any doubts, the Italian cooks — genuine Neapolitans — frequently emerge from the kitchen to chat with diners. Accents aside, though, it would probably be more accurate to say "Inspired by Authentic Italian Cuisine," for Cuoco Pazzo's offerings seem deliberately slanted for American tastes. Most of items on the menu are straight out of the Southern Italian-American canon and are very soft, mildly-flavored, and, frequently, smothered in cheese. Above all, the portions are gigantic — so big, in fact, that waitresses were heard advising diners to not get both a primo and a secondo. And that actually turns out to be good advice.
Out of the gate there are a few stumbles. The caprese salad ($8.95) comes on a big round plate with a half dozen roma tomato slices interspersed with discs of mozzarella, sprinkled with diced basil and drizzled with olive oil. The mozzarella is rather mild and flavorless, as are the tomatoes, and the dominant flavor is the salt. The Vongol or Cozze al Vino Blanco ($9.95) follows the traditional preparation of mussels or clams (or both) with white wine, olive oil, and garlic, and while the mussels and clams themselves are plump and tasty, the broth at the bottom of the big ceramic bowl is thin and tastes more of wine than anything else. There's some sandy grit in a few of the clams, and a ton of diced parsley — still raw and crispy — gives an unpleasantly crunchy texture to the broth.
The primi are better. One of my favorite things about Cuoco Pazzo is their pomodoro sauce, which is smooth and thin, with a bright tomato flavor and just a mild hint of spice. It is used on plenty of dishes, including ricotta-stuffed manicotti, ravioli, spaghetti with meatballs, gnocchi, and lasagna. It may be on the primi menu, but the gnocchi ($10.95) are more than enough to constitute a full entrée. There are a ton of them on the round white platter, and they're smothered in melted cheese and covered up with that bright pomodoro sauce. The gnocchi themselves have a pleasant, soft-but-chewy texture, and the sauce goes quite well with them.
The lasagne ($10.95) gets a similar treatment. A big square of layered pasta is sliced into two triangles and placed on a wide round plate with another smothering of red sauce. The menu mentions only meat sauce and besciamella, but there's a generous portion of gooey cheese layered in, too. The pasta sheets are exhaustively cooked, and the meat inside is very finely minced into almost a paste. The end result is a dish that is exceptionally soft — so soft, in fact, that the chewiest part is the melted cheese. Like the gnocchi, it's plenty big enough to stand alone as an entrée.
If the primi are big, the secondi are even bigger. Almost all are served over a huge bed of spaghetti, which makes sense if they are being ordered as stand-alone entrées but is extraneous if you just finished a pasta primi. All the usual Italian-American suspects are there: veal marsala, chicken parm, chicken Florentina, shrimp alfredo, and frutti di mare. The veal Saltimbocca ($16.95) is a broad, sauteed cutlet served in a white gravy-like sauce that's way too salty and overloaded with sage. In the spirit of bigger is better, there's a mountain of salty prosciutto strips and a ton of gooey provolone cheese on top, too, and the requisite bed of very soft spaghetti underneath.
It might seem a bit odd to complain about portions being too big, but in this case quality and subtlety seem to take the backseat to sheer quantity. It is, however, a formula that seems to be working pretty well for Cuoco Pazzo: all 12 tables were filled on the two weekend nights I visited, and the weeknight traffic seemed pretty steady, too. (The lunch business, apparently, wasn't as brisk, and the restaurant just recently limited itself to dinner service only.)
There are some nice touches that extend beyond the décor. The bread is good — a flat, handmade-looking loaf that's tender and delicious. It's served with a saucer of olive oil laced with herbs and finely-minced red pepper, and — when the bread is still warm and soft, at least — it's the kind of thing you'll munch on unconsciously until you've eaten an entire basket before the appetizers even arrive.
Cuoco Pazzo makes its own limoncello, too, which is delightfully mellow and tangy and a great way to finish up a meal.
In fact, the endings to the meals reflect the strange contradictions of Cuoco Pazzo. With such a small dining room, the music being played has a remarkably powerful effect on the overall atmosphere. During a single evening, the music, piped in from speakers up above, started off up-tempo and grew in volume and intensity, transitioning from Billy Joel-esque Italian pop during the primo course to what sounded like an Italian knock-off of Queen. By the time the massive secondo arrived, the room was thumping with dance music with a strident 1-2-3-4 beat, recorded live before a howling crowd. The diners' voices in the restaurant rose with the music and suddenly it was very loud and chaotic — the front door seemed to open and close every few seconds, and the once-cozy room started feeling steamy and cramped.
But, by the end of the meal the music shifted again, and a crooner backed by a warbling organ began softer, plaintive melodies. And it changed the whole mood of the place. We lingered over a glass of limoncello as the surrounding conversations mellowed to a buzz. With the grape vines above and the flickering of the table-top candles in their oval globes, you could almost imagine yourself in a cool grotto.
Those little touches make the relative dullness of the food all the more disappointing. Cuoco Pazzo falls somewhere between the cliched red checkered tablecloth places with candles in wicker chianti bottles and more ambitious Italian restaurants that strive for intense, authentic flavors. It's soft, comfortable, and unadventurous — the kind of thing you would like if you like that kind of thing. You certainly won't leave hungry.