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For authentic Italian, try Paisano's at Pechanga

Paisano's at Pechanga Resort & Casino offers guests authentic Italian cuisine.
Paisano's at Pechanga Resort & Casino offers guests authentic Italian cuisine.Todd Montgomery

About a year ago, I wrote about a wonderful meal we had at Paisano’s Italian Restaurant at Pechanga Resort & Casino in Temecula, about an hour north of San Diego. Recently Paisano's invited us to try its updated menu. We were so pleased to talk with Chef Francesco di Caudo again. Since last summer, the Chef has been introducing new menu items seasonally and we eagerly anticipated trying his summer menu, which continues through most of September. We asked the Chef to serve us his favorite dishes and we were not disappointed.

Francesco brings his Sicilian heritage to Paisano’s with the enthusiasm and expertise he gained firsthand from his family in Sicily. He then honed his skills at cooking schools in Italy and France. Before coming to Paisano’s, where he assumed his first position as a head chef, he worked at high-end restaurants in Las Vegas. Chef Francesco is personable, passionate about his food, and innovative. He is dedicated to offering high quality, delicious, authentic dishes to his guests.

We began our feast with absolutely mouth-watering Tonno E Panzanella—seared, peppery ahi tuna, with tomato, cucumber and red onion. The tuna was fresh, flavorful and beautifully presented. The dish was enhanced by a touch of spice and lovely deep red tomatoes. This was a light, enticing beginning to the wonderful meal to follow.

We also enjoyed another “Antipasti,” Fritto Misto, a unique take on the standard calamari appetizer found in so many restaurants. This dish included not just lovely, fried baby squid but also shrimp, smelt, and zucchini, all accompanied by a delicious, spicy tomato marmalade. We especially relished the addition of whole little smelts that fondly reminded us of the smelt served seasonally in Wisconsin (our home state before we came to California). Smelt is a bit of an acquired taste and this dish is a great way to try it out.

As we savored these appetizers, we sipped two special wines that paired well with many of the dishes. Todd enjoyed a 2010 Banfi Chianti Classico Riserva, which was bold with strong cherry and plum tastes. It went very well with the richer pasta and meat dishes we had later. I loved the 2012 Banfi Pinot Grigio. Its light, crisp, citrus flavors really enhanced the tuna and also complemented the light pasta and fish enjoyed later in our meal. We really appreciate Paisano’s extensive wine list, all conveniently presented on an iPad beverage menu. We loved clicking through the colorful, illustrated pages and learning about the many cocktail, beer and wine options.

The chef next served us a trio of pastas to sample. The scrumptious Ravioli al Gorgonzola was made from scratch right at the restaurant (as is almost all of the pasta served at Paisano’s) and was smothered in a rich, creamy, walnut sauce. The Trofie Italia consisted of small twisted pasta (called liguria) in a basil pesto sauce accented with cherry tomatoes and burrata cheese. My favorite pasta was the Cappellini al Pomodoro Fresco, a savory angel hair pasta dish in a light tomato broth with capers, black olives and oregano.

We then enjoyed two main courses. The Brasato, prime beef short ribs with tiny, crunchy vegetables and a savory white salsify (a root vegetable like a parsnip), was Todd’s favorite dish of the evening. He loved its tenderness and intense flavor, especially with his bold red wine. But we both also raved about Lavarello, seared whitefish in a lemon-caper sauce accompanied by roasted baby onions, sea beans and black garlic. We especially enjoyed the sea beans, which we had never tried before. These thin, bright green beans, which grow in marshes close to the ocean, were salty, flavorful and nicely complemented the fish.

I must point out how much I appreciate Chef Francesco’s generous use of capers, which I happen to love, in many of his dishes. Their unique, salty flavor enhances so many other ingredients and they reduce the need for additional salt.

Now we were really full so we opted for an assortment of refreshing Gelati Misti (all made in-house) and cappuccinos, although Paisano’s has several tempting dessert options, including Lemon Olive Oil Cake, Chocolate Mousse Hazelnut Cake, Tiramisu Classico and Spumoni.

Our recent Paisano’s experience reinforced our assessment a year earlier. This restaurant is a treasure in Southern California that people need to discover when they are thinking about fine dining. Not only is the food delicious and enticingly presented, but the atmosphere in the restaurant is romantic and stylish.

In addition to their regular menu items, which are reasonably priced, on Friday nights, Paisano’s offers a Dinner and Dancing Special that includes a three-course meal for $40 a person. After dinner you can adjourn to Pechanga’s rooftop nightclub, Eagle’s Nest, to dance. On Sundays and Mondays, Paisano’s offers a Family Style Special for $15.95 a person. Paisano’s is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. You have about a month to enjoy the current summer menu. Then stay tuned for an update on what will be offered on the fall menu beginning the end of September. For reservations call 951-770-8506.