Short, savory and simple is the best way to describe the menu at the Pizzando in Healdsburg. The former coffee shop and newsstand that occupied the busy corner on Healdsburg Avenue has been transformed into a casual eatery headed by Top Chef winner Louis Maldanado. The menu barely stretches a page long and is broken down into a few categories: Appetizers ($9), Pasta + Meat ($16) and Pizzas (normally 4-5 to choose from, varying in price). There are a few add-ons like poached eggs, if you wanted to dress up your pizza, along with a few veggie sides and normally a special or two at the bottom. There is a small, but impressive wine and beer list on the back that includes 10 or so wines by the glass and bottle. The wines are strictly Sonoma County favorites (MacMurray Ranch, Pinot Noir, 2010 $10/$36) or from various regions in Italy (Matteo Correggia, Arneis, 2011 – Roero, DOCG Italy $11/38). Corkage was a modest $15 a bottle.
The restaurant itself is small, consisting of 8-10 tables, floor to ceiling windows all around that open up during the warmer seasons and an open kitchen manned by a staff of two. It’s an intimate space, not unlike something you’d find tucked away on a side street somewhere in Rome or Florence. We were quickly seated in the corner with the wood burning oven to our backs. If you gather up a hungry group of 6 or so, I’m convinced the whole menu can be had in one ambitious sitting. We had 3 adults and a Piglet and managed half the menu. And while that might seem excessive, aside from the pizza, the portions are small (more on that later).
We started with the soft shell prawns roasted on walnut wood chunks with lime, chili butter (*** out of 5). The four prawns arrived on a bed of smoldering embers, heads separated, but including for your eating pleasure. The plate included limes for a little acid and a small bowl of chili butter. It was like Rick Moranis shrunk a beautiful lobster feed. While tasty, no one at the table tasted the smoke on the prawns and for being labeled prawns, these seemed a bit on the small side. Sucking the roe out of the head was enjoyable though.
As another starter, we had the burrata, arugula and roasted lemon marmalade pizza (**** out of 5), which was refreshing and bright thanks to the arugula and lemon and balanced nicely with the char from the oven and the creamy burrata. This was the tip of the iceberg for us and we dove headlong into a flurry of other pizzas, pastas and meat. The duck sausage, fontina, tomato, sage and onion pizza arrived next, which was a nice, rich alternative to the lightness of the lemon burrata pizza. The chili oil they served with it added a sinus clearing punch that cut through the heaviness.
With the pizzas came our first pasta of the night: Spaghetti Chitarra, cured pork belly, tomato, poached egg (*** out of 5). While tasty and surprisingly lighter than expected, the poached egg was a little under poached, leaving the less than desirable runny white yolk bits towards the bottom of the bowl. If I didn’t eat with my eyes first, this might not have been an issue. A surprise hit that night was the amazing, crispy chicken legs with spicy vinegar (**** out of 5). I hit up chef/ owner Louis Maldonado on Twitter (@LMaldonado3) before we got to the the restaurant and he was nice enough to get right back to me. He said YOU NEED to get the prawns and chicken. Normally, I pass up chicken on a menu when I’m eating out. I’ve got nothing against a good fowl, but there always seems to be better options. But, when the chef tells you to try it, you try it. And I concede, it was some of the best chicken I’ve had. Perfectly crispy dark meat on the bone served with what tasted like a sweet and sour sauce with a kick. It was such a hit I contemplated ordering another one for dessert.
At this point, we were licking our fingers, rubbing our bellies and finishing off the last drops of wine clinging to our glasses when we realized we had room for one more dish. I know, gluttonous… hence the name. So with what enthusiasm we could muster, we ordered a final pasta dish: Fresh tagliatelle, butter, grana, mixed mushrooms and peas (*** out of 5). It was earthy and rich and the pasta retained an al dente bite. I felt like it could have used something to brighten it, maybe a squeeze of lemon or some vinegar, but still a good conclusion to the night (and it kept me from ordering more chicken for dessert). A quick low down on the pasta dishes: they aren’t the heaping bowls of pasta you might find at other restaurants. Pizzando obviously favors quality over quantity. So, if you’re hungry going in, a pasta on its own might not do the trick. Which is fine by me, as it’s simply an excuse to try everything else on the menu.
Considering the prime location, casual atmosphere and well executed dishes, Pizzando (3 1/2 stars out of 5) has has become a favorite of mine when venturing up north. The food is approachable and not overly fussy and it’s a great alternative to the always crowded Scopa across the plaza. It’s also cheaper than a plane ticket to your favorite Tratorria in Tuscany.