50 Maple St., Danvers
Hours: daily from 5 to 11 p.m.
All major credit cards accepted
Accessible to the handicapped
Die-hard locavores won’t approve of I Pazzi, an Italian-Mediterranean restaurant that opened in Danvers Square three years ago. Everyone else, make a beeline to this quietly spectacular fine-dining spot.
Here, when you order a “fresh whole fish” (we had the orata, or sea bream, for $30), it’s fresh all right, but it was likely caught in Greece. According to chef-owner Irtan Bleta, our little fish was air-freighted to Boston shortly before our dinner.
“We get wild boar from Texas, rabbit from California, venison from New Zealand,” he said. “This weekend we’ll have bison from Canada.”
If all that mileage bothers you, know that the pasta, at least, is made on the premises, and so are the breads and desserts. (The pastry chef is Irtan’s wife, Anna.)
This is a place to indulge, provided you don’t mind paying for it. Bleta, a native of Albania, worked and cooked in Italy for 12 years before coming here and working at Circolo in Manchester-by-the-Sea.
We arrived at I Pazzi without a reservation just before 7 p.m. on a recent Thursday and were seated right away. By 7:15, the dining room was filling up. A small bar at the back soon filled as well.
A server brought us thick, hot breadsticks and poured olive oil onto shallow white plates. Next she poured a neat blob of dark balsamic vinegar into the oil. Then she spooned a small mound of freshly ground parmesan on the side, followed by flakes of red pepper. It was a charming little ritual, the kind that distinguishes I Pazzi from a more ordinary restaurant.
An arugula salad ($5 for a half, or $8 full) was a delectable combination of organic baby arugula, crumbled gorgonzola, fresh strawberries, water chestnuts, and toasted pine nuts.
An appetizer of clams and mussels in the shell ($9, or $15 full) came in a zingy, robust tomato-and-wine broth, as rich as chowder.
Listed in the pasta section of the menu is “Risotti to Pleasure,” which, our waiter explained, is an invitation to pick what goes in your risotto. You can ask for it with wild mushrooms and black truffles ($25), for example, or caviar ($28). We tried it with fresh lobster meat ($28), which was plentiful and succulent. Served with chopped vegetables, the risotto itself was pleasantly chewy.
The above-mentioned whole fish was skinned and deboned at our table — another little ritual we enjoyed. Despite the distance it had traveled, the fish was delicate and juicy. It came with a tangle of julienned vegetables, roasted potato, and a half lemon (tied in a cloth with a ribbon, to trap the seeds).
Our waiter was attentive and knowledgeable without being intrusive. It was clear he was proud of what he was bringing out. When we mentioned that a side order of braised fresh spinach had never arrived, he nodded and returned a few minutes later. Setting down the plate of hot, slightly smoky-tasting spinach with a smile, he murmured, “It’s on us.” (For the record, the spinach is normally $6.) He didn’t make a show of acting apologetic, so we weren’t made to feel uncomfortable. More restaurants should handle errors this way.
For dessert, we split a serving of tiramisu ($8) that was delightfully fresh and moist. It tasted of cream and butter and liqueur. Our only quibble was the noise level in the dining room. With several large parties on hand, we had to raise our own voices to be heard.
One of the quirks of this family-owned restaurant is its logo: a stick figure self-portrait that the Bletas’ daughter drew at her Montessori school when she was 3. The name of the place is a little quirky, too. In Italian, “i pazzi’’ means “the crazies.” This may allude to the family’s business prospects when they opened the doors in early 2009.
“We bought the place when the economy was horrible,” Bleta says. “But we believed. Now, things get better and better and better, we hope.”