Though Paesano has been around for twenty-seven years, I haven’t eaten there very often. My husband hates strip malls, and although Paesano is a freestanding building, it sits on Washtenaw Avenue–for him, the very center of strip mall hell. But given the assignment to review Paesano with a new chef, I was eager to visit.

When Italian-born Isabella Nicoletti left last December, owners Michael and Bridget Roddy named her sous chef, Michigan-born Dave Whitney, as her replacement. I wondered how much the new chef might have learned from the old, and just how Italian a restaurant could be on the Washtenaw strip, where the big draws are free parking and low prices. Italian food is, after all, primarily about the seasonality and quality of the ingredients. To my mind, the best local executors of that ethos, the restaurants best attuned to the simplicity and purity of Italian food, are Mani Osteria and Silvio’s. But both of those places are downtown, without the easy access that’s the upside of Paesano’s site on the strip.

Despite–or perhaps due to–a stifling summer, on our August visits Paesano’s dining room was filled with couples, families, and small parties. The outdoor patio was particularly desirable and surprisingly pleasant, with a pergola, screening plants, abundant flowers, and a fountain happily obscuring the five-lane road alongside. The dining room itself is divided into several rooms, with nooks and crannies that provide privacy and intimacy.

The menu, which is not inexpensive, is large, and the chef augments it with several daily specials. Offerings range from traditional lasagna and eggplant parmigiana to more exotic interpretations of contemporary Italian dishes and seasonal specialties.

The best dish we had, an appetizer, was one of the simplest. Grilled asparagus, though cooked beyond the tender-crisp stage, was deliciously topped with a beautifully fried egg sprinkled with bits of truffle salt. The duo of asparagus and egg is nearly perfect, and Paesano’s rendition of this classic combination was a good one. Other appetizers we had, however, were not so nicely constructed. The mixed fish carpaccio featured thin slices of raw swordfish and salmon, but a heap of salty, astringent capers and too much fresh oregano obliterated the fish. We ordered the pork belly pizza because the description sounded intriguingly odd–chunks of rendered pork belly, corn, celery, Gorgonzola cheese, and barbecue sauce–but the result was just odd. Though the crust was fine, the sauce was too sweet, the celery too thickly sliced and intrusive. Perhaps with a bit more tweaking of the other toppings, the underlying trio of pork, blue cheese, and corn could shine. Paesano’s version of the Italian summer menu stalwart, Caprese salad, featured local tomatoes and burrata cheese buried beneath an avalanche of pine nuts, crispy pork belly, and micro greens. We enjoyed the salad, but, again, a lighter hand with the garnishes would have improved the dish.

Entrees include a preliminary soup or house salad. Order the soup or upgrade to one of the seasonal salads; the house salad is just a small plate of plain mixed greens which, in my case, went back to the kitchen uneaten because the greens were not only uninteresting but also well past their prime.

When I was there, Paesano’s entrees included a savory grilled half chicken, a treat for those of us who appreciate the flavor and juiciness of meat cooked on the bone. A special of fried smelt, lightly dusted and quickly fried, reminded us all of how tasty those little morsels could be. But other entrees suffered from the same difficulties that bedeviled the appetizers. A wonderful piece of sable was marred by a romesco sauce that tasted only of chunky canned tomatoes and chopped almonds, rather than the complex Spanish puree of charred tomato, hot and sweet peppers, nuts, and vinegar that it should have. Both the chiatarra (guitar-string pasta with lobster and shrimp) and the chicken-artichoke ravioli featured a slew of peas; while the ravioli was homey and appetizing, the chiatarra was nearly flavorless. A special of mushroom ravioli with speck (cured, smoked ham) and brown butter sounded delicious, but the pasta was inordinately undercooked, the brown butter undetectable. Double carbonara, Chef Dave’s version of the classic pasta dish, added prosciutto, peas, and asparagus to the pancetta-egg-parmesan mix; the result, though palatable, was sticky rather than creamy and luxurious. And the delicious cheesy vegetables that accompanied the Wild Boar Tenderloin had to work hard to save the dry, overcooked meat (ordered medium-rare, served well).

The most expensive ($36.95) entree on the menu, a grilled and sliced T-Bone Florentine, also had kitchen issues. Ordered medium-rare, my steak arrived, as advertised, sliced off the bone. But only the bit next to the bone was actually medium-rare; the other slices ranged from medium to well-done. Noticing my dismay, the waiter asked if he could return the steak to the kitchen for another, and I agreed. A few moments later he returned with the same plate, nervously stating that the kitchen believed the steak to be correctly cooked. As we looked at him and the plate in astonishment, the floor manager swooped around the table and, without pausing, said, “Yup, that steak is medium-rare.”

I saw no merit in further argument and ate the steak; even overdone, it was tender and flavorful, as was the side of garlicky spinach. However, all three former food service professionals at my table disagreed with the manager’s assessment of how it was cooked–and all agreed that his reaction showed an extraordinary absence of reasonableness and tact. (As former FSPs, none of us believes that the customer is always right, but we do understand that gracious service is essential.)

Desserts proved uninteresting–big and gilded with abundant garnishes but not very inspired at their cores. Service matched the food–uneven–warm and knowledgeable one night, insincere and uninformed another.

My sense is that Chef Dave is trying too hard–applying exuberant amounts of garnishes where less might do, venturing ill-conceived combinations of flavors and textures, and creating overly ambitious concepts that the cooks can’t really render. But Paesano, after nearly three decades in business, has a loyal following; what I write about the restaurant will not affect its business. And I think that Chef Dave, given more experience and a better-trained kitchen staff, will eventually produce dishes that are better balanced and more integrated.

Paesano 3411 Washtenaw 971-0484

Mon.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri. 11 a.m.-midnight, Sat. noon-midnight, Sun. noon-10 p.m.

Lunch salads and sandwiches: $3.95-$13.95. Lunch entrees: $10.95-$18.95. Dinner antipasti and salads: $3.95-$14.50. Dinner pasta and entrees: $11.95-$36.95. Desserts: $4.95-$7.50.

Wheelchair friendly.