I know, what’s with a preface to a review? Is it some admission of not being able to objectively evaluate a place? Or a built-in excuse for the inevitable “don’t just be a cheerleader for a pricey restaurant” response? Who knows? It could be anything - but I do feel like sharing my biases about Paci in Southport.
First, they’ve been open in Southport for fifteen years, about as long as I’ve lived in Westport – so there is a hominess and familiarity to the place that I appreciate. There aren’t many constants in life, but for nearly a third of my years, Paci has been there. Secondly, it is the closest fine restaurant we can reach without driving on Post Road or I-95 – and that is a relaxing way to start a dinner. Thirdly, for about two years when I strayed from my career in publishing, to explore a career in wine, Paci was a customer. Unlike most establishments that had treated me like a customer when I spent money but treated me like a guy trying to sell something when I brought in wine, the people at Paci never treated me with anything other than graciousness any time I stepped through the door. Does that create bias? I suppose. But it isn’t a bias because they gave me business, rather because they always welcomed me with open arms – and what customer doesn’t appreciate that attitude?
I had the good fortune to dine at Paci throughout June, both solo and with groups. I’m happy to report that this restaurant in the old Southport train station is at the top of its game, serving simple but elegant farm-to-table Italian food in what may be the most beautiful dining space in the area. Over the course of a handful of meals, I was able to try some new dishes (changing with the market-fresh ingredients), while revisiting some old favorites.
Salads at Paci highlight that farm-to-table quality that is just as important to the restaurant’s identity as is cooking style. The insalata con arancio is one of the menu stand-bys – mesclun greens served with navel orange sections that brightly contrast with creamy goat cheese, with sliced almonds providing some nice crunch. Being partial to chopped salads, I also enjoy the tagliata, a nice chopped salad of vegetables, feta cheese, and vinaigrette. The roasted beet salad, over arugula, with ricotta and balsamic vinegar is, in all of its brightness, another winner.
Warm appetizers are also consistently strong. I was fortunate enough to be at Paci one night when large grilled Portugese sardines were on the menu - smoky but dressed with oil and vinegar, parsley and capers, and diced cucumber, pepper, and onion. But some of the menu constants – like variations on grilled shrimp and the peperoni alla griglia – are consistently top notch. I especially love the bits of caramelized garlic and anchovy with the hot peppers.
Not surprisingly, Paci has a roster of pasta dishes that changes with the season and can be ordered as either as half-course appetizers or as entrees. I especially recommend the seasonal ravioli. Most recently, the ravioli filled with Swiss chard, fennel sausage, sweet onions, ricotta, and parmesan was perfectly prepared, and topped with a sausage, cream, and veal demi-glace sauce that was rich but not heavy. My favorite Paci ravioli is the very short-seasoned asparagus ravioli, which is the taste of spring.
As I review recent meals and menus, it has hit me that there are a lot of vinaigrettes used throughout the menu, contributing to a collection of dishes with bright flavors that aren’t just fresh, but are refreshing. This is especially true with the fish entrees, like a recently served red snapper over Israeli couscous, with sweet onions, Kalamata olives, and chopped tomatoes.
Two meat entrees have long stood out to me and both say a lot about Paci. The vitello Milanese is the restaurant dish that, forced to make such a choice, I would eat every day. The veal is lightly breaded and fried, and topped with arugula, cherry tomato salad, and extra virgin olive oil. This dish is the taste of summer. The veal is succulent but with a crunch from the fresh breadcrumb crust. The tomatoes and a squeeze of lemon juice give the dish some brightness and acidity that offsets the oil. So simple, so delicious, and, in my experience, always prepared perfectly – never greasy, a perfect crust, and a garnish that is always fresh.
On most days the last (and most expensive) item on the menu is the Paci prime dry-aged sirloin. I did not order this for a number of years. I love steak. I used to eat in a lot of great steakhouses, before I decided that I could do just as well at home, cooking beef myself. The steak also seemed a little out of place on the Italian menu, so I avoided it. Then one day I was reading about Bob Patchen, the chef/owner, and learned that he comes from a Norwalk butchering family. Suddenly the prominence of the dish on the menu made complete sense to me, so I had to order it. Truly, this was the best steak that I have ever eaten in a restaurant. Cooked perfectly (in my case, medium rare, with a nice sear on the outside and pink throughout), the steak was also seasoned ideally, with salt, pepper, and garlic, creating a flavorful crusty outside around the juicy, beefy inside.
Paci occupies a 150-year-old building that once was a train station. Renovated 15 years ago, Paci’s James Beard Award-winning design has an open, modernist feel, while the exposed brick, beams, and wood floors give the space a lot of warmth. It’s completely classy, without being stuffy. A large railway station style clock is projected high on the wall, above the semi-open kitchen. There is also an open second level over about half of the first floor, with seating that is available for groups or on busy nights. At the opposite end from the kitchen, underneath the second floor seating, is one of the best quiet bars in the area, with privacy from the main dining room, and bar seating that also makes Paci one of the more comfortable places that one can dine solo, if so inclined.
Service at Paci is friendly, knowledgeable, and accommodating. Wine service is great – with an extensive, almost exclusively Italian wine list that has been honored by Wine Spectator. On weekends, Paci offers a small selection list of “reserve” by-the-glass wines, that otherwise would only be available on their bottle list – an option that I highly recommend.
Believe me, I read my own words and am taken by the lack of anything resembling a critical word. But year-in and year-out, Paci has been that good. Sure, they are one of the pricier restaurants in the area – but the diner gets the total package, of great food, great atmosphere, and terrific service. Maybe the quiet Southport location has kept Paci off the radar of those who prefer in-town dining. Maybe it has been open for enough years that it is simply taken for granted? In any case, I believe that Paci is a treasure in the local food scene that should not be overlooked by anyone looking for a complete dining experience.
Paci 96 Station Street, Southport. 203.259.9600
[Photography courtesy of Christina Venturini / Blue Pear Photography]