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Yo, Paisano's serves primo Italian food

Ed Lordan, Times Restaurant Critic

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Delaware County Times November 14, 2001

The decor is simple: couple of wooden chairs and tables on a tile floor; a long white counter across from a soda case, where a small TV is tuned to the local news; phones ringing incessantly below pictures of kids slurping spaghetti and a group shot of HBO's "The Sopranos." At this kind of place, I'm thinking stromboli or pizza.

Ah, but this is Johnny Paisano's, a little patch of South Philly that offers the delicious food people associate with a true Italian neighborhood. And the true South Philly native is owner Johnny Minicozzi, called Johnny Paisano by his friends.

Johnny Paisano's is more of a trattoria than a pizzeria. Minicozzi opened his eat-in, take-out restaurant three years ago, offering such gourmet dishes as baked salmon with sage-herb butter or chicken cutlets with provolone and broccoli rabe. The front may look like a local pizzeria, but the kitchen defies pedestrian forms of Italian food. In fact, you won't even find pizza on the menu. The decor is really a front, a ruse that hides some exceptionally rich, delicious and varied Southern Italian delicacies.

"We're from South Philly," explains Minicozzi, "and you don't just serve up food to customers down there. The people who shop at your store are your friends, and you want to make what you sell as good as possible for them. Our food is special, and our relationship with our customers is special as well."

Johnny's father, also John, personifies the friendly approach. "He doesn't just work the counter. He's a guy who gets to know everybody who comes in here," the younger John says with pride. "When things get crazy around here, he's pulling people in to roll meatballs in the back! Customers! He takes a couple days off, people come in and say "Hey, what'd you do, fire your father? You can't do that!"

So, what's so special about the menu? Start with salads, including mescolare, antipasto, spinaci, mozzarella e pomodoro and Caesar, running $2 - $7. Appetizers start off average enough, with pepperoni and cheese and Italian chicken wings, but then escalate to capnoata (vegetables and eggplant over crostini) and stuffed portabello mushrooms.

If you're thinking light, there's a nice range of gourmet sandwiches, both hot (peppers, provolone and tomato, prosciutto and broccoli rabe) and cold (rosemary ham with tomato, onions and cheese, or Italian-style roast beef with onions). Again, this is not your basic sandwich.

This close to South Philly, of course, they also offer steak sandwiches and roast pork, too. Many of these are solid selections, but to really experience the place, you've got to sample the entrees: eight chicken dishes, seven veals, an equal number of seafood options. Entree prices are a little north of $10, but it's more accurate to compare these dishes to meals you would find in South Philly neighborhoods. On that scale, they're well worth it.

We opened with a nice Caesar salad ($4.95) with romaine lettuce and homemade, garlic-flavored croutons mixed with an equally fresh homemade dressing. Good start.

Staying veggie, we moved on to an elaborate pepper trio appetizer at the same price. Long slivers of green and red pepper were grilled, oven-roasted and fried, then served over crostini, a thick Italian bread. The pepper trio, like most of the dishes we enjoyed here, were enhanced with an assortment of Italian herbs -- be ready for healthy doses of seasonings at Johnny Paisano's

Be ready to wait, too. The Johnny Paisano approach to food prep can take as long as 45 minutes per order, depending on the traffic, so order well before you plan to pick up, or call ahead and place your order if you're going to eat on the premises. That's not as difficult as it seems since Johnny Paisano's, for all of its old-world ways, has a well-constructed Web site (johnnypaisanos.com) that lists everything that's available, including the daily specials. They do not offer a children's menu, so our little guys were convinced to step up to adult food, and they met the challenge. The elder wolfed down a mountain of spaghetti ($6.95) with Bolognese sauce. Other toppings include aglio e olio, roasted pepper pesto and rosa, but we wanted to keep it as simple as possible so he could feel at home. The large hunk of Italian bread, again seasoned with herbs, made a nice complement to the meal.

The younger went with ravioli ($8.95), a collection of pasta pillows crammed with rich ricotta and slathered in more Bolognese. Both dishes were tasty and filling. Neither boy had room for dessert.

Their mom had enjoyed an exceptional sandwich on an earlier visit, so she decided to order it again. At $5.25, her Italian-style tuna was the least expensive dish of the four, but may have been the tastiest. The large, fresh Italian roll was layered with roasted peppers and sharp provolone cheese, but best of all, it was filled with the kind of thick, rich fish that rarely find its way to Delaware County. I doubt they catch them this way in South Philly, but they always prepare them right. This is tuna the way fresh tuna should really be prepared. Considering what five bucks buys you in 2001, this sandwich is an exceptional deal.

I went high-end to test Johnny's entrees, and was pleased with my selection. Shrimp Neopolitan-style($15.95) included peppered shrimp and lump crab meat over penne pasta, tossed in a pepper pesto. The dish was generous with fresh seafood and the long tubes of pasta captured the best of the peppery sauce. The shrimp were slightly translucent, a sign that they were undercooked, which diminished their taste and texture. The rest of the ingredients worked fine.

Our combination of lower and higher-cost items brought dinner to just over $50 for four. That's well above the atmosphere, but more than fair for the quality and quantity of food.

Johnny Paisano's is an interesting concept, a restaurant that offers a selection far more sophisticated than the decor. If you can't make it all the way down Broad Street, but want some excellent South Philly-style dishes, pay a visit to Johnny Paisano's.

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Johnny Paisano's

The Daily Times

In the mood for mega-ton, depth-charge stromboli? You won't find it here, paisan. What you will find is tasty, tony Italian fare, with prices to match: Entrees start at $9 and top out about $17. On the other hand, if you're seized on the way to the softball game with a craving for filet or sauteed veal medallions or shrimp topped with sun-dried tomato cream sauce and jumbo lump crabmeat-who else to call? Terrific sandwiches are available, too, at more modest prices. Try the tuna.

What's Hot What's New

Philadelphia Inquirer

Features Food: Table Talk With Michael Klein

A longtime dream-come-true for John Minicozzi, a South Philadelphia boy who as a young guy toiled in such kitchens as Frankie's Seafood, La Cucina and Fueri's but who took a steady job with Wawa. He has struck out on his own to open Johnny Paisano's on Baltimore Pike near Bishop Avenue in Springfield, Delaware County. It's a homey, Old World-style trattoria-14 seats, mostly takeout-with salt-of-the-earth stuff from his Eighth and Bigler roots (chicken cutlet, meatballs, pastas, nothing over $14.95).

No Pizza? Can This Really Be Italian?

Philadelphia Inquirer

Features Weekend: Mystery Muncher

Word of yet another takeout Italian joint along ugly Baltimore Pike hardly set the Deputy Muncher's mouth to watering. But a closer look started the juices flowing. No pizza? No strombolis? No greasy lunch meat? No mayo? You call this Italian? In Delco? And how! Johnny Paisano's is the real deal: mostly takeout, yes, but upscale, delicious Italian fare. (And you can eat in.) There are hot and cold panini, crammed with the likes of real prosciutto, capicolla roasted peppers and fresh Italian tuna (not-horrors!-tuna salad) on fabulous Italian rolls; an array of antipasti; homemade soups; rich salads; and pasta, chicken, fish and veal entrees worthy of Mama. You'll pay more than at Pizza Doodle. Johnny's entrees start at $8.95 (including bread and salad) and creep near $12 - but the sandwiches average just 5 bucks, and the fare will break you of strombolis forever. Reason enough to stop by. Johnny Paisano's, 226 Baltimore Pike, Springfield, is open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. No smoking. Phone: 610-690-0150.

Johnny Paisano's - Food for Friends

Bette Alburger

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Springfield Press

It was two days after Thanksgiving, and we were turkey-ed out. We'd had our fill of the all-American bird and our tastebuds were hungry for something completely different--like say...Italian. So we headed to Johnny Paisano's Take-Out & Eat-In Italian Restaurant on Springfield's Golden Mile. There, like Christopher Columbus and the Pilgrims who followed into the New World, we dicovered a wonderful world of good eating, Italian style. And, for the second time that week, we were stuffed. Along with serving up very good food, Johnny Paisano's provides very generous portions.

As most people know, "paisano" means "friend" in Italian. It's also restaurant owner John Minicozzi's nickname. So when the South Philadelphian opened his eatery on Baltimore Pike in February, 1999, it was only natural he named it Johnny Paisano's. And in the almost two years he's been in business where a bakery used to be, he's made alot of friends. During our recent dinner, there was a steady stream of customers coming to pick up their orders. What's more, every one of the restaurant's five tables was occupied by sit-down diners. Eat-in represents 25 percent of Johnny Paisano's business; the other 75 percent is the take-out trade. The restaurant also has a catering service that can handle any size function, from a private gathering or an office party to a large corporate event. It also can provide custom party platters for pick up or delivery. It offers daily specials, too. And every Friday night is Mussel Night, featuring homemade red or white sauce and a half a loaf of Italian bread ($8.95 or $10.95 with spaghetti). The only thing this eatery doesn't do is pizza, because this isn't a pizza place. What it offers is real, home-made Southern Italian cuisine with a casual touch (i.e. plasticware), at a reasonable cost. It's food that reflects his Neopolitan heritage, Minicozzi said. And everything is the freshest possible, thanks to his daily visits to Philadelphia's Italian Market and its food distribution center. "We don't have a walk-in freezer to store things, so we have to buy fresh every day," he added.

Dinner got off to a delicious start with steaming cups of hearty, home-made soup. Zuppe del Giorno (soup of the day) changes daily and is priced at $1.95 cup; $2.95 bowl; $4.95 quart. The night of our visit, the soups were chicken with pasta and vegetables, and tomato basil. Both were excellent, especially the latter. Next was a succulent Stuffed Portabello Mushroom appetizer ($6.95). Three giant mushrooms topped with sharp provolone and roasted peppers were more than enough to share. We also shared a serving of Bruschetta ($3.95), five slices of brick-oven bread topped with fresh tomatoes and mozzarella cheese and zipped up with garlic and basil. Equally rave-worthy was the Caponata ($3.95), fresh veggies and eggplant sauteed in a light tomato sauce and heaped on toasted Italian bread. It wasn't easy to decide on an entree from a myriad of different salads. Going for traditional, my husband chose Spaghetti Bolognese ($6.95) topped with a big home-made meatball ($2.25). It did not disappoint, plus there was plenty to provide a second serving at home. I also was well pleased with my Veal Picata ($12.95):two large tender medallions prepared to perfection in a delectable lemon/butter/white sauce topped with capers. A mound of herb-roasted potatoes and whole green beans were appealing and flavorful accompaniments. Entrees come with a huge tossed salad of fresh greens, black olives, onions, carrots and red pepper strips, with a choice of dressing. Considering the size of the servings, dessert was out of the question even though the case of calorie-laden temptations was really hard to resist. Among restaurant-style desserts is Chocolate Noir. "This cake is so rich you have to go to confession right away because it's a mortal sin," joked Minicozzi's father, Sonny. he often can be found giving his son a helping hand after working a 9-5 job.

Based on our recent dinner, more Minicozzi family members might eventually be needed to keep pace at this take-out/eat-in eatery carves a distinctive niche on the Delco dining scene. Johnny Paisano's is at 226 Baltimore Pike in Springfield betwwen Ye Ole Ale House and the Big/Tall Men's Store. It's open for lunch and dinner seven days a week, from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. weekdays; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sundays. Patrons may bring their own spirits; set ups are provided. Everything on the menu is available for takeout by calling 610-690-0150 or faxing 610-690-0152.

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