The sea of subdivisions at State Road 37 and Southport Road hardly seems the most likely location for one of Indy’s newest Italian restaurants. Especially one with such upscale ambitions. Squinting to read the tiny red letters that spelled out “Italian Restaurant” on the side of the massive building housing Pauly’s Restaurant and Catering Hall, we wouldn’t have figured that vibrant tomato red and pesto green walls with striking black trim would greet us inside. We wouldn’t have predicted the elegant, quirky atmosphere — half Medieval mead hall, half art-deco chophouse — with mini-banquet tables dubbed “Guido” and “Godfather,” the latter an invitation-only table where Pauly himself serves guests potential new menu items. Clearly this Italian restaurant was not built in a day. For our nearly 25-minute wait for our appetizer, we were rewarded with the highlight of the meal. The humbly named “beef and mushrooms” ($7.95) was anything but humble. Tender chunks of beef tenderloin swam in a deeply complex, Madeira-spiked gravy with roasted pearl onions, crimini mushrooms and a creamy caramelized shallot flan. This was a starter that rarely makes menus in this city, and we found ourselves dabbing up every bit of the sauce with our bread. Following quickly on the heels of our appetizer, salads paled considerably. A house salad ($2.95) promised a classic chopped salad but delivered bagged lettuce — most of it iceberg — and only a few crunchy vegetables for texture. Evidence the lettuce was pre-mixed came from the curious fact that carrots were both chopped and presented in more typical shreds. The “roasted” Caesar ($4.95) arrived in a beautiful offset alabaster-white bowl. A mélange of roasted peppers and a quartered boiled egg added nice diversions from the status quo, but the dressing lent little flavor of garlic, lemon or anchovy to the salad, and several leaves of romaine were slick and brown. By now, most local diners have some sense of the divide between pasta-and-sauce-heavy Americanized Italian food and the light antipasti and meatier dishes you’d actually be served in Italy. Pauly’s seems to aim squarely between these two camps. A list of hearty stewed dishes and seafood entrees is matched one for one with more typical offerings such as linguine with clam sauce and pasta primavera, indicating Pauly’s desire to meet just about any taste (and price range). The osso bucco ($18.95) — made here with pork instead of traditional veal — was, indeed, impressive. A fat pork shank stood upright on the plate with the meat literally sliding off the bone. The pork still wore a lot of fat but utterly melted on the tongue. Two sauces, a subtle Cabernet demi-glace and a compote of jammy stewed tomatoes, provided a nice contrast to the mild flavor of the meat. Charred asparagus spears were tender with the right crunch. Only the risotto seemed mushier than it might have been, packed a bit too compactly into a little mold. Saffron imparted the mildest flavor to the rice. The Pauly’s Combination ($19.95) brought together three all-too-familiar dishes on the same plate. Fettuccine alfredo emphasized the innate sweetness of cream on nicely al dente noodles. By itself, it was a tad bland; with a steak this would have been perfect. Chicken parmesan seemed to start out crispy but softened too much under the weight of cheese and a sweet marinara. Lasagna verdi al forno was rich and less saucy than most lasagnas with spinach pasta and a good mix of cheeses. But it gilded the lily on such a rich plate. A lighter poultry or seafood dish could have cut through the heft of this trio. Spaghetti and meatballs ($9.95), that favorite of cartoonists and kids, came with two of “Mama’s” giant meatballs that were meaty with little filler. And the pasta’s toothy texture would make an Italian kiss the chef on both cheeks. But the tomato sauce was so cloyingly sweet that it dominated every bite. Artfully presented desserts looked a bit better than they tasted. Tiramisu ($5.95) was creamy but had almost no bite of liquor or espresso. A sacher torte ($5.95) packed a whole lot of chocolate into a soft cake with plump raspberries on the side. Our favorite, the mixed berry fruit tart ($5.95) — more a moist cake than a tart — married the tartness of the berries with a tender, not-too-sweet crust. Despite all the space surrounding this mammoth restaurant, a tiny patio offers only about three tables for open-air dining. But the cars passing on 37 provide little in the way of view. As darkness fell on this stretch of one-time farmland, we wandered to our car with leftovers, marveling at all of the great gustatory discoveries one can make on the margins of this ever-expanding city, hoping for even more.

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