Paesano Ristorante Italiano opened its doors in downtown just three years ago, but it has a history that pre-dates almost every restaurant in San Jose.

The building, located on Julian Street just off of Highway 87, was constructed in 1885 and originally served as a corner grocery for the first of three Little Italy neighborhoods in San Jose. The second of these communities sprouted up near Willow Glen by Sacred Heart church. The third was over by Backesto Park on North 13th Street. Over time, in part because of urban sprawl, all three of these Italian boroughs thinned to the point that they disappeared.

Plans for a new Little Italy neighborhood emerged shortly before Paesano opened, making the restaurant a giant piece of the puzzle. After all, what is a Little Italy without a good Italian restaurant? Answer: It’s a grandmother that can’t cook.

Joshua Devincenzi Melander founded the nonprofit group Little Italy San Jose in addition to an Italian school, the Sabatino Memorial Family Resource Center, which is located on the same block as Paesano. He and partners are currently in the process of opening Bel Bacio, a nearby Italian cafe. Like Paesano, these establishments will all be located on the original street where Little Italy once stood—and in the community’s original structures.

Even Henry’s Hi-Life, the smokehouse barbecue joint that morphs into San Jose Sharks parties before and after games, is part of the new Little Italy district. Henry’s building was once the historic Torino Hotel, housing Italian immigrants in the early 1900s, many of whom eventually built homes in that first Little Italy.

“Every great city in the United States has a Little Italy—Boston, New York, San Diego, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco,” Devincenzi Melander says. “San Jose is the 10th largest city in the United States. We have a large Italian population. This whole area was the Valley of the Heart’s Delight.”

The significance of Paesano goes even deeper as Devincenzi Melander doesn’t just aim to restore a lost historic neighborhood; he wants to connect the fourth-generation Italian Americans in San Jose with a new wave of Italian immigrants who have come here in the last two decades to work in the tech sector.

Paesano owner Giuseppe “Pino” Spatola moved from Sicily to the states as a young man. For 15 years he ran Siciliano Ristorante in Redwood City, until Devincenzi Melander talked him into selling it and opening Paesano to be the flagship Italian restaurant in the new Little Italy in San Jose.

Paesano’s charm starts with its historic confines and appealing atmosphere. It doesn’t resemble the grocery store it once was, but the restaurant has an ambience similar to sitting in a friend’s dining room. The tables sit close together, perhaps close enough to smell envy another patron’s appetizer. The noise level could be a bit much for some guests, but most times it’s quiet and intimate. The vibe is casual, and while I’ve heard there’s a wandering accordion player that sometimes serenades guests, I’ve never had a chance to make her acquaintance.

I started with the Antipasto Paesano for $12.95, which is a plate of cured meats, veggies, olives, seafood and a hunk of fresh, soft mozzarella. It captured the simple, bold and hearty flavors key to Italian cuisine.

The menu is an interesting blend of classic Italian-American staples and some lesser known Southern Italy dishes. I stuck to the basics like the gnocchi alla genovese ($16.95), which consists of small potato dumplings served in a creamy pesto sauce. The dumplings were perfectly cooked and nearly melted in my mouth. The pesto sauce was light, with just a hint of the herb flavor to cut through.

The waiter suggested Paesano’s lasagna rustica ($16.95) as a popular dish, and it didn’t disappoint—nothing like the cheese-stuffed American version that hits the bottom of one’s stomach like a dropped shoe. Each order is cooked in its own individual oval pan, with sweet tomato sauce and cheese baked on top. Packed inside are chunks of succulent, spicy sausage.

For dessert, I had my eye on the mascarpone lemon, but they were out, so I went with the tiramisu. Paesano serves a thick slice of it. The lady fingers were soaked in espresso, and when I pressed down on the cake with my fork, coffee seeped out the side. The resulting flavors were smooth and blended well. Cocoa powder on the top was a bit heavy, but otherwise it was a delicious end to an excellent meal.

Paesano has proven it can hold its own as the lone restaurant in San Jose’s Little Italy. If things go as Devincenzi Melander has planned, it won’t be alone for long.

Paesano Ristorante Italiano, 350 W Julian St, San Jose. 408.217.9327.