Dining paesanos

 

It is hard to believe that that yummy dish – Shrimp Paesano – came from the same culinary creator that brought us strawberry and whipped cream-laden Belgium Waffles during Hemisfair in 1968. Joe Cosniac came back to the Alamo City after the fair to open Paesano’s, and the rest -as they say – is foodie history. Paesano’s will celebrate 50 years of serving San Antennas beginning in February.

 

“You’re only as good as your last meal”: Paesanos restaurant celebrates 50 years in the ‘people business.’

Arthur Emerson vividly recalls the day in January 1985, when 13 inches of snow fell on San Antonio — a city that can go twenty years without seeing a single flake. He was hungry.

“The city was shut down, but some friends and I got into a 4-wheel drive vehicle and drove down McCullough to Paesanos, slipping and sliding all the way,” the president and CEO of KLRN, the city’s PBS station, said recently. “And the parking lot was full! It’s one of my coziest memories of dining out. I remember looking out the window, watching the snowflakes fall, reflecting in the streetlights.”

Paesanos, which celebrates its 50th year in February 2019, was founded by restaurateur Joe Cosniac and his late partner Nick Pacelli a half-century ago on a commitment to simple food and immaculate service — freak snowstorms or not.

“It’s a people business,” Cosniac has always said.

It’s been that way since the 22-year-old Cosniac came to San Antonio, fresh off Expo ’67 in Montreal, to sell Belgian waffles at HemisFair ’68.

After the international fair ended — and a short detour to the Olympics in Mexico City — Cosniac returned to San Antonio (“I didn’t want another Canadian winter”), and opened his Italian restaurant in a former barbershop on McCullough Avenue, just a couple of miles north of downtown.

“It was just a box — one room,” Cosniac said. “The rent was cheap. When you think about San Antonio in the late ’60s, early ’70s; it was just starting to bud out.”

Paesanos — the name translates to “countryman” or “pal” in English — quickly became a success, thanks to the food and the ambiance.

“If I had to put it in one word,” said diner Lauren Gordon, whose parents brought her to Paesanos as a child, “is that it is an experience. The food, the service, the ambiance all come together in a wonderful experience.”

In the beginning, it was a neighborhood joint, a family bistro, and a social club.

“It was the place to be back then,” said George Karutz Sr., who has been eating weekly. “You’d see everybody in town there. It was fun. And Joe not only knew your name, he remembered what you ate the last time you were there. He just worked so hard. He had all these white shirts, and he would wear three or four of them a day. Just to stay clean. He was always immaculate.”

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Famous Shrimp Paesano

Early on, Cosniac developed the restaurant’s signature dish, Shrimp Paesano, featuring plump shrimp in a lemony, buttery garlic sauce on a bed of pasta.

“With new customers, I ask, ‘Do you like shrimp? Do you like butter?’ And 99 percent of the people say it’s the best thing they’ve had in their life,” said Patti San Marco, a Paesanos waitress for 19 years. “Some ask to take a pint of the sauce home with them.”

It’s a staple on a menu that combines heartiness and elegance in seafood, beef, chicken and pasta dishes, ranging from red snapper stuffed with crabmeat to mushroom ravioli with pesto to chicken marsala.

“My favorite dish is actually the ribeye,” said Brian Miketen, who has dined at Paesanos Loop 1604 for 12 years, and rarely misses a Sunday meal at the restaurant, “to get ready for the week to come. It may be a little odd to order steak at an Italian restaurant here in the middle of beef country, but it’s one of the best steaks you can get in the city.”

Miketen introduced his son Daniel to Paesanos as a child.

“I feel like I’ve spent half my life at Paesanos,” said Daniel, who’s in his early 20s. “It’s the food, of course, but also the people. We feel like they know us. I’ve introduced some of my friends to Paesanos.”

After 50 years, Paesanos can count several generations of many families as customers.

“We see grandfathers here with their sons and their grandkids,” said Tammie Lochamy-Adrien, a Paesanos waitress for 23 years. “We do a lot of engagement dinners, wedding receptions, graduations, Mother’s Day — a lot of family events. Someone will come in and say, ‘Oh, my dad told me to tell you, hello, and he’ll be in soon.’ Everybody that comes in here knows somebody.”

From that one-room box, Cosniac built a small restaurant empire that spread over Texas and the country; today, it includes three Paesanos — River Walk, Lincoln Heights and Loop 1604 — seating hundreds of diners a day. While the Lincoln Heights location retains some of that one-room box flavor, the 1604 restaurant is a Hill Country getaway, a contemporary Mediterranean villa carved into a rustic setting, with a rock-bordered creek stocked with Koi running through a couple of patios for al fresco dining.

Paul and Kim Kimbro have been eating there since it opened a dozen years ago.”It’s our favorite place,” said Paul, who likes to order fish or pizza. “I learned to drink wine — well, good wine — here. And you can dress up or dress down.” Kim, who likes the pork tenderloin, added: “Every major family event, we come here. Graduations, birthdays, Father’s Day, we’re here. It’s the way I’m made to feel when I come in like it’s a little neighborhood restaurant within a big restaurant.”

Restaurants, even successful ones, rarely last a half-century. Cosniac insists there’s no luck or magic involved in the longevity of Paesanos. “What really makes a restaurant is the energy and the electricity created by the customers,” he said.

Diners can feel it: longtime customer Mary Stork (“I’m a pizza gal”) says Paesanos is one place they can bring their young children and relax. “I feel like Paesanos is part of our life,” she explains.

“It’s all in the details,” said Tim Bieker, manager of Paesanos Lincoln Heights. “One of the big things I’ve learned in my years at Paesanos is attention to detail. Keep things simple so that when a customer walks in the door, they know what they’re going to get. It means a lot to me to be a part of something that has been around for so long.”

Asked what he eats at Paesanos, Bieker doesn’t have to think twice. “Aside from the Shrimp Paesano, I really love our Lamb Osso Buco.”

Fifty years is an epic milestone in the hospitality business, and a restaurant doesn’t get there on its menu alone. There are certain intangibles at Paesanos.

“It’s been instilled in the staff that we need to know everyone who comes in here,” said Evan Gambee, manager of Paesanos 1604. “We greet everyone and treat them like family. That’s part of the magic of the place. It’s all about the people. As Joe says, ‘You’re only as good as your last meal.’”

By John Bloodsworth