Illiano's reinvented as Paesano's is a welcoming spot

When a boreal wind swept my wife and me north from Texas to live in New London - all those years ago, as George Harrison sang (though he was referring to the Beatles and not us) - we early on sought occasional respite at a place called Harrington's Pub on Bank Street. Just shy of the Waterford line, Harrington's had a big oval bar in the middle of the main room, and overhead was a circular, rotunda ceiling with a Michaelangelo-style mural of cherubs who protectively watched us drink. We felt comforted in our strange new world.

Then Harrington's closed and the Illiano's folks - with several reliably fine local restaurants - took the building over, remodeled it (but kept the cherubs), and the restaurant seemed to serve as their flagship location.

The Illiano clan recently has given the Bank Street site a conceptual makeover and re-opened it as Paesano's Pizza Bar & Bistro. Yes, there are plenty of the fine culinary elements long associated with Illiano's still present, but there are some fun new touches, as well.

First of all, it's a sleekly attractive look. The small dining area directly next to the takeout counter - once merely functional - has a darker wall hue, patterned and comfy high-backed booths and designer light fixtures.

The bigger room - with, yes, the angel rotunda intact - has been completely reconfigured. There's a black-top bar running along the near wall with flat screen televisions at either end and gleaming bottles and keg taps. Huge, welcoming booths line the other three walls, and the central part of the room has tall-top tables with plenty of roomy space for privacy. More and bigger screens are hung at strategic points, and on recent visits soccer fans of all demographics were eating, drinking and living and dying with their teams.

There's also a small, floral-happy courtyard in front for outdoor dining, although that particular stretch of Bank Street is not exactly like sitting on the top floor of the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Fran, gazing out at the City by the Bay. But, hey, we're New London and we happily make the most of our opportunities! It's a long winter in these parts.

OK, for the food, Paesano's has a generous menu featuring many Illiano's staples as well as some new recipes. There's also a small but clever bar menu. Over a few recent visits, here are some observations:

Meatball sliders ($5) - This is a bar menu item, and I expected one slider. Instead, three huge and tartly seasoned homemade meatballs appeared, each on a freshly baked roll and drizzled with marinara and mozzarella. A meal unto itself - and very, very good.

Cobb salad ($9) - I know: why a Cobb salad? It was Father's Day and I was thinking of the Old Man, who loved them. This is a tremendous version. In addition to fresh greens, the plate was crammed with grilled, marinated chicken hunks, diced boiled egg, olives, fresh avocado, tomatoes and cukes, pepperoncini and roasted red pepper strips - and a lattice-work top of thin, crispy smoked bacon.

Gnocci alla Sorentina ($12) - Potato dumplings tossed in just-from-the-garden tomato sauce, mozzarella and Romano cheeses and basil. A huge portion of pillowy goodness, with the gooey bits of cheese delicately popping up in the simple-but-divine sauce. Entrees come with a salad and homemade focaccia bread. Dewy greens and vegetables including beets and chickpeas - and the bread was a nice counterpoint.

Bianca pizza ($15.95 large) - A massive and delicious white pie creation fusing ricotta and mozz, garlic, parsley and parmigiano. This was four meals' worth. The crust had a great chew, and the toppings were evenly distributed and plentiful without obliterating the subtler elements.

Buffalo chicken pizza ($19.50 large) - Again, beautifully done. The hot sauce marinade had torque without atomizing the tongue, and the chicken and mozz and side blue cheese sauce were irresistible.

Chicken cutlet grinder ($8) - The grinders come in one size, but they're plenty big enough. A nice spin on the basic theory. Instead of slabs of deep-fried breast, the sesame seed po' boy loaf was stuffed with small, thin-cut medallions of tender chicken, flash-fried for a delicate exterior crust, with a ropey canopy of cheese, shredded lettuce and tomato, and a sprinkling of oil.

Bottom line: Paesano's has all the Illiano's elements that fans love, but they've also created a welcoming spot to spend time in a handsome lounge, enjoying friends or sports on television.


Paesano's Pizza Bar & Bistro

929 Bank St., New London
(860) 447-9390

Cuisine: Pizza, Italian classics, nice twist on bar food nibbles

Atmosphere: Completely redesigned; very relaxing and hip

Service: Friendly, attentive Young Persons, one of whom cheerfully changed a channel to the U.S. Open from whatever Young Person show had been on

Hours: 10:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Sun.-Thurs.; 10:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat.

Credit cards: All majors

Prices: Bar menu 75c-$13, soups, salads and appetizers 40c-$9.50, grinders $7-$8, pizzas $9-$20.95, entrees $12-$18

Handicapped access: Two doors to navigate from side entrance; easier through front door


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