The little green house with the quaint picket fence on Spring Street in Paso Robles is a long way from Rome. But this is where Sicilianborn Gaetano Marsano decided to open his restaurant two years ago.
He brought with him more than two decades of Southern Italian cuisine learned from working in his family’s bistro in Rome, as well as in restaurants in Spain, France, Switzerland, and eventually San Luis Obispo, where he worked for Cafe Roma for 10 years.
Through the years he also developed a passion for food and people —which is immediately evident when you walk in the door and are welcomed with his warm hug and exuberant smile.
Gaetano’s Ristorante can accommodate only 50 people at the 12 tables inside, and a few more on the patio when the weather is warm. But the dishes and flavors served here are big — large servings of pasta and meats, heavy, sweet tomato sauces and lots of red wine.
Even appetizers are big, which I discovered when I ordered the Antipasto Misto ($9). The antipasto came on a large platter and included Italian staples such as salami, marinated eggplant, two types of bruschetta, grilled zucchini and large hunks of Parmesan cheese. It even included some surprises like smoked salmon and capers.
The serving was easily enough for two, especially when paired with the restaurant’s fresh focaccia and fragrant olive oil. It was a perfect way to start the meal, with salty, sweet, sour and spicy all on one plate.
There are also other classic Italian starters on the menu, including Calamari Fritti ($8), Carpaccio dello Chef con Crostini ($10) and salads made from spinach, arugula and romaine. My husband’s spinach salad was fresh, drizzled with a light sherry vinaigrette, and showered with walnuts and gorgonzola.
But don’t load up on the appetizers. The main courses are not for the light eater. My Pappardelle Boscaiola ($14) was a large mound of fresh, wide flat pasta in a spicy tomato sauce, with chicken, eggplant, cremini mushrooms and toasted walnuts. Every bite offered a different taste and texture, and the pasta was cooked perfectly al dente. But the sauce is characteristically Southern Italian, heavy and sweet—a bit too sweet for me, but my husband loved it.
Other pastas include Lobster Ravioli ($15), Spaghetti with Pesto ($14), Orecchiete with Italian sausage ($14), and several others.
The other main course my husband and I shared was Vitello alla Parmigiana ($22). The two large pieces of veal were thinly pounded, tender and sauteed with a light bread-crumb coating. Smothered in sweet tomato sauce, and covered with melted cheese, it was paired with a potato croquette and green beans.
Again, the sauce was a bit sweet and heavy for my taste, but that’s a subjective opinion. (In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve been diabetic since age 12, and I have an overly sensitive sweet tooth!) But this is definitely not light Northern Italian fare.
Each of our dishes were easily large enough to share. In our case, we brought enough leftovers home for another two meals. And Gaetano’s signature Cioppino ($28) is truly a feast.
Don’t forget dessert
Dessert choices for the night included cheesecake, a flourless chocolate cake, tiramisu and an Italian classic often not found on menus: spumoni.
Marsano imports his rich, creamy spumoni—which is an ice cream combo of pistachio, chocolate and cherry flavors— directly from Sicily. It was studded with pistachio nuts and dried cherries, and drizzled with a light chocolate sauce, it was divine.
I ordered the tiramisu as well, which was a classic version of the layered coffee and brandy-soaked lady fingers with creamy mascarpone cheese, but I kept going back to the spumoni for more. (OK, even though I am diabetic, I’m a sucker for desserts!)
A fine wine list
The impressive wine list includes more than 75 selections of local and Italian wines, most big and red, to match the food. The corkage fee is $10, so guests are encouraged to bring their local favorite wine.
Gaetano’s is open for lunch as well during the week. The lunch menu has a nice assortment of panini, including eggplant, salmon, flank steak, and a traditional salami, mortadella and tomato version, all between $8 and $9 each.
Pizza is also a good choice — the Pizza Margherita ($11) was large (about a foot across), with a thin crust and lots of melted mozzarella. With a side salad or appetizer, it would make a great lunch for two.
Pasta dishes and other items are also on the lunch menu, and with the light lunchtime crowd, it’s a great place to escape for a quiet midday break.
It’s easy to see Marsano’s passion in every detail of this small restaurant. He left Italy, he says, because he wanted to have a place where he could do exactly as he wanted. Fortunately for Paso Robles, he decided to land here, bringing a taste of Southern Italy with him.
Reach freelance writer Janis Switzer at janisswitzer@ yahoo.com.