by Damien DiPaola
Courtesy of Scene Magazine
Trattoria Il Panino is the kind of place that one would expect to find along the Amalfi Coast. It is a warm, friendly, non pretentious, and food focused environment. From the casual and positive energy of the atmosphere and wait staff, to the serious and professional energy of the kitchen, a desirable marriage of front and back of the house is formed. Il Panino is what it is, thank god. The misuse of the word “Trattoria” may cause non-Italians to think that a Trattoria is something it’s not. Trattoria is a no frills and authentic dining experience, an informal restaurant that serves dishes steeped in regional tradition. Capice?
This is Frank DePasquale’s first location and his baby. Opened twenty years ago, complete with chefs from Sorrento training the staff on all things “Neapolitan”, nothing has changed, it’s as good as day one, if not better. Chef Willie Lopez, his energetic and experienced kitchen staff, and manager Antonio Chioccarelli work to provide a real and heart warming food experience. There are no elaborate and over-done dishes, no crazy garnishes, and not too many words that don’t really mean anything to anyone.
Raised Sicilian, by a mother whose delicate, magical touch with food, both spoiled me and ruined me, make me very fussy. There are dishes that I will never order on any menu, in any Italian restaurant – the main one being a stuffed artichoke. Through the insistence of Antonio, I broke my rule and ordered the Carciofo Ripieno. It was unbelievable. This large artichoke was stuffed with a breading of olives, capers, pancetta, and chopped artichoke stem. The hints of garlic were very subtle and combined well with the fruitiness of the extra virgin olive oil and the sweet, lightly tannic artichoke. Sitting atop a light, lemony, warm, and homey artichoke broth, the flavors reminded me of my childhood; seated with the entire family and mangia-ing on Sunday afternoons.
Melanzane alla Parmigiana, Eggplant Pie, appearing as a thick wedge of layered apple pie, was in fact layers of thinly sliced, egg-dipped eggplant, buffalo mozzarella, fresh basil, and San Marzano tomato. One ingredient did not overpower the others, minimal amounts of good quality product blended together for pleasing mouthfeel. The way the grated and shaved parmigiano were sprinkled on top gave the appearance of caramelized sugar and flaky pie crust. This preparation reminded me that Parmigiana, when prepared the right way, is something very special.
Fried Zucchini Flowers were stuffed with light, whipped buffalo ricotta and cooked prosciutto. The imported and expensive Ricotta di Bufala is not too widely used in restaurants because of the expense. Alas, what a difference it makes. The flavor, lightness, and subtleties of this fresh ricotta make all the difference in the world.
Italians have been preparing raw and lightly cooked seafood salads for centuries, but somehow the Japanese get all the credit. Octopus Salad arrived as tender, delicate thin slices of octopus simply prepared with celery, diced pepper, high quality extra virgin olive oil, a hint of lemon, and aromatic parsley. I will take that salad over any rubbery and flavorless Tako-Su served in any sushi joint anywhere, and that’s the truth.
One of Trattoria Il Panino’s famed servers, Maria, noticed how we were enjoying every drop of every dish. When asked how everything was, “fabulous” was my only response. She nodded in agreement and said, “The boys in this kitchen here make everything with love.” It’s now making sense why everything is on point. These guys love to cook and it shows.
A nightly special, Tagliolini con Granchio, are homemade tagliolini served in the body of a Jonah crab with a very rich, deep, intense red sauce made with a crab stock reduction, brandy and tomato and essence of tarragon. The flavors were purely from the ocean, a dish that I can see myself eating on a cliff overlooking the bay of Naples. Each bite went down joyously with sips of fantastic Greco di Tufo. However my disappointment grew as each bite left me less pasta to eat. However, I reminded myself that this was work and I had to eat on for the readers benefit.
Pasta Amatriciana was made in the authentic Roman way, with tiny cubes of sweet, smoky rendered pancetta, and onions that dissolved in the sweet, aromatic, San Marzano tomato sauce. Once again, this kitchen showed that all things Italian should be served in the least complicated, highest quality method. Chef Willie shows that he doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to classic dishes; he makes the dishes exercising professional restraint for integrity.
The traditional Neapolitan Aqua Pazza (“crazy water”) was prepared with jump-out-of the-ocean-fresh striped bass. The fish was white and pearly with clean intense flavor. The very light and aromatic Aqua Pazza broth once again demonstrated a disciplined, and light hand that would never let the garlic overpower, a mistake that is made in so many other Italian restaurants. Did I mention the fish is cooked is sea water?
The Costata di Vitello alla Milanese, is a thin pounded, breaded and pan fried to a crispy golden brown, veal loin chop. Served with Arugola and baby tomato salad this is another dish that is so traditional and homey, yet ruined by over zealous chefs who need to personalize everything. The secret, I believe, is a well seasoned house made grated bread and good quality extra virgin olive oil that is heated to the right temperature, not to a temperature that is too high, which burns the sensitive oil and impacts the final flavor. The veal was outstanding, tender to the fork as well as to the bite, with light garlicky hues and clean parsley finish. I ordered this dish knowing it would be prepared right, the kitchen earned my trust after the first couple of dishes.
Probably the highest form of flattery that I could give Il Panino is that this is a place I would take my mother for dinner. The next form of flattery is that this is a place that I know she will enjoy. After eating through half the menu, I can honestly say that this is the kind of restaurant that makes me want to come back for more and more and more ….