I found myself in Ames, Iowa one evening staying overnight for an early morning meeting with a prospective dealer. Not knowing much about the culinary fare of Ames, I asked the girl at the front desk if there was a steakhouse or an Italian restaurant that she recommended. Her face lit up and said, "Yeah! Actually, you can have both at a place not far from here!" She recommended I try Pazzesco Pasta and Chophouse out on the western edge of Ames on Lincoln Way (see map).
Pazzesco (pronounced Pad-ZEE-sko), which roughly means "wild, crazy and fantastic" in Italian is the brain child of Chris Patterson, a native of nearby Nevada, IA (we Iowans pronounce Nevada as "nuh-VAY-da" with the long "A" in the middle). Patterson was a graduate of Iowa State University with a degree in Hotel, Restaurant and Industrial Administration and co-founded GNC Restaurants, a multi-concept restaurant group based out of Ames. He ran GNC for about five years before moving on to work for the Cracker Barrel restaurants.
After becoming a District Manager for Cracker Barrel, Patterson went on to work as a Regional Manager for Canyon Cafe, a Southwestern-cuisine restaurant chain based in Dallas. Patterson worked for Canyon Cafe for four years before the restaurants were purchased by AVADO Brands, a restaurant holding company that owned a number of Don Pablo's Mexican restaurants as well as a number of Hops Grillhouse and Brewery locations. (AVADO filed for bankruptcy in 2007.)
Soon thereafter, Patterson (pictured right) then went on to work with the Leeann Chin, a Twin Cities-based contemporary Chinese fast food chain. Patterson opened the first 3 Leeann Chin locations in Kansas City, eventually opening 7 total in the area. From Leeann Chin, Patterson went on to become the President and C.O.O. of Austin Grill, a multi-location Tex-Mex restaurant in the Washington D.C. area.
After Austin Grill was sold in 2008, Patterson decided that he wanted to do something else. He wasn't overly happy with the new owners and he was finding solace in music. He had formed an alternative country music group - Leaving, TX - in 2004 and the group had gained somewhat of a following in the Washington D.C. area and even toured parts of Europe. But the restaurant business was in his blood and he decided to move back to his roots in Iowa soon after Austin Grill was sold.
The Broiler steakhouse on the far west side of Ames was a popular place to eat for over 45 years. (Years ago I had a t-shirt with "The Broiler" on the front of it. Don't quite remember how I got it as I'd never been to The Broiler, but I used to wear it all the time when I played basketball.) The original Broiler closed for awhile around 2007, but reopened in the fall of 2008. It didn't last long, closing for good sometime in 2009. The building sat idle until Patterson came back to Ames and decided to open an Italian steakhouse in the place. Patterson literally gutted the place and formed the restaurant to his vision. Pazzesco opened in July of 2010.
(Pazzesco in Ames. Photo by Scott Dresmel, courtesy Ames.Patch.com)
Patterson is also a partner in a new gourmet burger place in Ames called Oddfellows Burger Kitchen - a restaurant on Ames' north side that opened earlier this year. I might have to try that place at some point. (Update - I did try Oddfellows very recently. Look for that entry on Road Tips in the coming weeks.)
Kellie Doyle is the chef at Pazzesco. Doyle's grandmother immigrated from Italy and many of the recipes used at the restaurant were handed down by her grandmother's ancestors. Patterson has also added some of his own recipes from working in Italian-style restaurants years ago. Doyle has been Patterson's chef since he opened Pazzesco.
Since it had been years since I'd been on the west side of Lincoln Way in Ames, I wasn't too certain where Pazzesco was. As I started to get out on the fringe of town, I saw a brightly lit side along the south side of the road just past the Boone County/Story County line. A handful of cars were in the lot when I pulled in.
A hostess met me at the front counter. She asked if I wanted to have a seat in the bar or have a table in the dining room. I went with the dining room option and she took me to a table along the wall near the front of the restaurant. The only problem was that a large family with two very loud and shrieking kids were at a large table just behind me. After a bit, I almost got up to go to the bar. But the adults were able to corral the kids and their loud screaming after awhile.
The main dining room was long and narrow with a number of old pictures on the wall. A fire place was at one end of the room with a number of tables throughout the subtle-lit room. It was cozy and inviting, even with the little kids still whining behind me.
The hostess had left me a menu and my waitress for the evening, Lindsey, came out to greet me and to take my drink order. I saw an Italian beer on their menu that I hadn't had in quite sometime - Menabrae. Menabrae is one of the oldest continuous breweries in Italy starting out in 1846. They had the lager and the amber Menabrae at Pazzesco and I got a bottle of the lager.
While I was waiting on my beer and looking through the menu, another person brought out a basket of bread and a plate with herbs and garlic swimming in garlic oil. The bread was halfway dried out and sort of bland, but the herbs and garlic oil made it taste a lot better.
Most of the items on the menu were your basic Italian entrees. They had veal and chicken parmesan, as well as chicken and veal piccata. They had pork piccata, too, and that sounded very interesting. I was going into the place thinking of getting a steak - they cook it either over a charbroiled grill, or they broil it in a concoction of better and garlic then serve it with a brown butter sauce. Oooo... I was so damn tempted to get a steak. But the veal piccata kept talking to me.
Lindsey came back and asked me if I had any questions. I asked her if the veal slices they had were large or more like medallions. She tired to use her hands to size the veal for me and she wasn't doing a good job of describing it. I said, "Wait, forget it. I'll make it easy for you and get the veal piccata." It was served on a bed of angel hair pasta with capers. I also ordered a house salad with their homemade garlic parmesan dressing.
The salad was a bunch of assorted greens with some croutons tossed about and the dressing on the side (below left). The dressing was a creamy garlic parmesan that was neither all that pungent in garlic nor parmesan cheesy. It was a pretty pedestrian salad. But the half-stale bread dipped in the olive oil and herbs was still getting my attention.
When Lindsey brought out the veal piccata (above right), I could tell from the looks of it that I was going to have trouble liking it. The veal had a heavy breading over it, then it looked like it had been stuck in a microwave to melt a bit of shredded mozzarella cheese. At first I thought it was a cracker and corn meal crust on the veal, but then I couldn't figure out what it was. The veal was stiff and tough - so tough that I had to ask Lindsey for a steak knife. Even with the steak knife, it still didn't cut very well. It was chewy and not very flavorful. The pasta under the veal was woefully overcooked and somewhat mushy. It didn't roll up very easily on the fork and the only spoon available at the table was a small one that made it difficult to roll the pasta on the fork. The capers were strong and forward in taste, but they were the only things on the plate that were. Still, the bread and the olive oil and herbs were saving the meal.
Looking back, I should have gone with my first instincts and gotten the steak. The veal was not very good, the pasta was overcooked and the salad was "eh!". But even with the nearly stale bread, the garlic herb olive oil dip was the highlight of the evening. That, and Lindsey's stellar service. Even though it was a good value, I can't really say that I was overly impressed with the food at Pazzesco. From reviews I've read on a handful of sites, it appears they do have a following and people do like the place. It could have been an off night, but the veal seemed like it was deep fried rather than pan-cooked. I probably won't be back to Pazzesco anytime soon. But if I do, I'd get the steak rather than the veal.
(Update - Interestingly, I may have had one of the last meals in Pazzesco. I usually write my entries of places weeks in advance and it was mid-March when I was in there. They closed on March 24 with a note on their web site saying they were looking for a new location. So far, there is no indication that they've reopened.)