The Pasqualone family has built a North Side destination for fine Italian dining. Look closely, or you might miss it.

A dinner at Pasqualone’s Ristorante comes with a side of storytelling. Stories of recipes created in the mountainous Italian region of Abruzzi by people trying to make ends meet. Stories of the Pasqualone family working to keep the restaurant open through a recession. Stories of big union reps sharing the intimate 11-table dining room with a former Republican governor of Ohio. And if you get the right server at this unassuming Columbus Square restaurant, chances are you’ll hear some of those tales.

The restaurant, which opened as La Plaia Restaurant in 1993, was purchased by David Pasqualone in 2005. He and his wife, Lori, have been running the restaurant—which uses recipes inspired by the Abruzzi region of Italy, where David’s father was born—ever since.

The thing is, it would be easy to overlook Pasqualone’s as a strip-mall dive. Situated next to The Rock Pub and adjacent to Hoyo’s Kitchen, Estilo Brazil Café and Mi Li Café (the latter three being no-frills destinations for Columbus foodies), the family-owned Italian restaurant is unlike the others. Open only for dinner, the establishment comes with prices that far exceed those of its neighbors. Getting a table without a reservation is next to impossible.

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And don’t count on bar seating. The bar itself is a homey wooden table topped with an array of liquors alongside a rack with a decent selection of Italian wines. Not all servers announce drink specials, and one, when prodded about cocktails, pointed at the bar and said, “I can make you anything from that, within reason.” Perhaps, but my Manhattan ($11) was so strong it went unfinished. It’s best to stick with one of the many bottles of Italian reds, which are presented with impeccable service.

The atmosphere is charming. One wall is covered with a mural of an Italian mountain village, while the rest of the room is kitschy shopping center architecture disguised as a fine-dining establishment, including a wall of painted brick and a drop ceiling of black tiles. Thick carpet featuring ornate patterns only partially helps to soak up the ambient sound of other diners. Although opera music is always playing, the restaurant can get uncomfortably quiet as tables clear out.

How memorable your meal is at Pasqualone’s is directly connected to the service, which is sometimes formal (with napkins placed on guests’ laps) and other times aloof (when the evening’s specials needed to be requested). But when the service is on—it’s on. The charming servers become friends, cater to every detail and remind diners that tables only get one seating a night, so leisurely dining is welcome. This strategy makes getting reservations a little more difficult, especially on weekends.

The set menu centers on veal, chicken and pasta dishes. (Some pastas are handmade, while others are sourced from Cleveland’s West Side Market). And those aforementioned specials mimic the menu, which are delivered without prices, so it’s easy to run up the bill. Warm, fresh-from-the-oven rolls (reminiscent of Parker House) and a simple lemon vinaigrette-drenched romaine salad come with every entrée. As a whole, the menu is insanely rich and relies on a recurring lineup of key ingredients, like Marsala, heavy cream, mushrooms, tomatoes and a never-ending supply of provolone.

One special worth snagging is the burrata ($12.50). A large ball of cool, tender burrata cheese is surrounded by cantaloupe wrapped in ribbons of salty-sweet prosciutto over a bed of greens and fresh tomatoes drizzled with balsamic vinegar. All of this is served with the restaurant’s signature vinaigrette.

One special is a departure from the rest. The octopus ($19) comes poached in white wine, seared in a skillet and topped with a vinaigrette over lettuce. If the slightly too-chewy octopus had been served chilled versus downright cold, it would have made for a better result.

Portions for the entrées are not dainty. The veal scallopini ($35) takes up the entire plate. Pancakelike in size and shape, and covered with a quarter-inch of a wine-, caper- and lemon-kissed sauce peppered with fresh parsley, the veal is succulent and tender.

In general, veal is always a winner at Pasqualone’s. A veal braciole special ($44) features a 6-inch round of salty veal rolled around a center of melted provolone alongside a generous portion of thick, house-made al dente cavatelli. Too large to be consumed in one sitting, it’s good to know that the leftovers are just as tasty.

The most interesting dish on the menu—and one that I’d definitely order again—is the veal loaf ($33). A giant, breading-laden meatball stuffed with hard boiled egg, pine nuts, spinach, multiple cheeses and prosciutto is served in a creamy lake of Marsala-enhanced gravy. When asked about the egg, our server explained that the dish originated in a poorer area of Abruzzi, and locals would use eggs as a cheap way to boost protein in the dish.

A special served multiple evenings was a lasagna layered with both fettuccine Alfredo and a pulled, braised pork shoulder ($38). The 2-inch stack of tender, house-made pasta was slathered with tomato sauce and melted cheese, and in the end, not as unique a dish as it sounds.

The chicken cutlet ($26) is a good option for the veal-averse carnivore. Pounded-flat chicken paired with prosciutto, sautéed mushrooms and provolone is covered in the restaurant’s much-loved Marsala sauce. The very rich dish is hard to finish in a single sitting, and setting it aside is advisable, especially to make room for dessert.

The majority of the desserts are shipped in, but the cannoli ($6.75) are made to order. The thick crust is difficult to break, but it’s worth reaching the dense, cinnamon-sprinkled ricotta.

Pasqualone’s is a delightful surprise on Columbus’ North Side. The juxtaposition of the restaurant’s exterior and interior makes it feel like a secret, but the real secret is to get a server who guides the experience with narrative and an adept understanding of what makes a great night out. Without that attention from servers, a spell is broken—and you’re suddenly aware that you’re in a Columbus shopping center, albeit one with good food. Luckily, two out of my three visits, Pasqualone’s was a stellar experience that delivered me to Italy.