103 Church Street
New Brunswick, Middlesex County, New Jersey
The Artful Diner
Special to nj.com
Step into Panico's and you take a step back in time. This is
what fine restaurant dining used to be and -- in my opinion -- should be again.
There's a definitive touch of elegance here: soft, subdued lighting, mirrored
walls, rich hues of salmon and pecan, a single rose gracing each table. And the
charmingly retro ambiance is perfectly complemented by the Old World civility
and service, which is epitomized in the gracious demeanor of maître d' Jose
The only discernable hitch in several visits proved to be the young woman
serving as bartender, whose nonchalant attitude, toward fellow members of the
staff as well as patrons, struck one as rather oxymoronic in such otherwise
sophisticated environs. Be that as it may, the comfortable bar area, sporting
live music as well as a DJ and populated by a more mature crowd early on and a
younger clientele as the evening progresses, is the perfect spot to enjoy the
pleasures of a preprandial libation.
While you're at it, be sure to check out the award-winning wine list, which
majors in Italian vintages with a nice smattering of American entries. The
wines available by the glass are rather pedestrian -- Principessa Gavi di Gavi
($7.50), and San Angelo Pinot Grigio ($8.00), both from Castello Banfi,
Antinori's Campogrande Orvieto Classico ($7.00), Chianti Classico from Cantine
di Montalcino ($8.00), Macie's Rocca Della Sangiovese ($8.00) -- but they are
certainly reasonably priced and should fill the bill for those who'd prefer not
to splurge on the fruit of the vine.
Obviously, however, the copious listing of full bottles is where the
oenological action is, though you need not shell out a small fortune to appease
your palate. Among the whites, I'd heartily recommend the excellent 2001 La
Scolca Gavi di Gavi ($85.00) or, for less than half the price, the very nice
2002 Cortese di Gavi from Pio Cesare ($34.00). Among the reds, consider the
always reliable 1999 Ducale Gold Chianti Classico Riserva from Ruffino ($75.00)
or the elegant 2002 Pinot Noir from Oregon's Domaine Drouhin ($65.00).
The saga in the kitchen is one of those great American success stories.
Eleven years ago, Nestor Ramos began his career at Panico's as a
dishwasher. Self-taught, he moved up through the ranks, eventually becoming the
second in command. Two years ago, he assumed the mantle of executive chef; and
his lusty, seasonally-inspired classic Italian cuisine ably carries on the
restaurant's illustrious tradition of bringing out the very best in the
freshest possible ingredients.
And the culinary fireworks begin almost immediately. Full and overflowing
with squares of freshly baked focaccia imbued with tomato, onion, and Parmesan
and a striking vertical arrangement of house-made breadsticks, the breadbasket
is but a harbinger of the good things to come.
Appetizers hit all the right notes. The Carpaccio di Portabello
($15.00), for example, is an exquisite innovation. Four thin slices of
portabello mushrooms surround an epicenter of greenery and are crowned with
delicious ragoût-like dollops of sun-dried tomatoes, scallions, sweet peppers,
grilled diced shrimp, and shavings of Parmesan cheese. A sparkling revelation
for both the eye and the palate... as is the Napoleone di Melanzana
($11.50). Perfectly roasted slices of eggplant are interspersed with fresh
homemade mozzarella cheese, tinctured with basil, and splashed with aged
balsamic vinegar. Heirloom tomato halves add an artistic touch of color.
If you prefer greenery as a prelude to your meal, there are numerous interesting
options: Insalata di Pesce ($12.50), a winning combo of pristinely fresh
calamari, shrimp, crabmeat, snap peas, cherry tomatoes, green beans, and sweet
peppers luxuriating in a light lemon dressing; Insalata di Fava e Pomodoro
($11.50), slices of heirloom tomatoes, fresh fava beans, chanterelle mushrooms,
and frisée lettuce consummated with an earthy blue cheese dressing; and Insalata
alla Cesare ($10.50), classic Caesar salad prepared tableside.
My favorite, however, is the Insalata di Arugula e Prosciutto
($14.00). Spicy, well-trimmed leaves of arugula are combined with fresh
artichoke hearts, red onion, halves of cherry tomatoes, crumbles of blue
cheese, and gently tossed with an assertive red wine vinaigrette. This heady amalgam
is then alluringly arrayed in a meaty collar of lean prosciutto. As beguilingly
attractive as it is delicious.
Pastas, of course, hold a prominent place at Panico's. All are highly
recommended, and all may be ordered as appetizers ($10.00 - $13.50) as well as
entrée portions. A favorite here is the Fettuccine con Salsiccia
($10.50/$19.00), fresh fettuccine tossed with generous strips of sumptuous
Italian sausage, braised fennel, cherry tomato halves, strips of fresh basil, and
topped with pecorino cheese. This is an enticing blend of tastes and textures;
and even the appetizer portion -- sampled by this writer -- proved more than
Entrées are rustic and robust yet beautifully prepared and presented. And
the star of the show is, in my opinion, the special branzino ($33.00) This is a
whole Mediterranean sea bass that is grilled, roasted, and dexterously filleted
at table; it is then set atop a seabed of garlicky sautéed spinach and
gloriously grilled vegetables (zucchini, yellow squash, red & yellow
peppers, and endive). A delicate white wine sauce with a touch of lemon is
served on the side. But the flesh is so moist and succulent that this
accompaniment, while exceedingly complementary, seems almost superfluous.
The osso buco ($34.00) -- which literally may be translated "hole in
the bone" and consists of the shank bone surrounded by tender braised veal
-- is another specialty of the house. Panico's version is cooked in a
different sauce daily, and the representative recently encountered had been
braised in celery, carrots, onions, and white wine and pillowed on a bed of
orzo. The veal was so melt-in-your-mouth tender that it fell off the bone.
Benchmark in every respect and simply not to be missed.
The presentation of Medaglione di Vitello ($25.00), pan-seared veal
medallions, is also a good bet. The veal is beautifully textured -- firm but
not fatty -- reclines on sautéed spinach punctuated with strips of red &
yellow pepper, and is finished with a heady port wine sauce. The perfect
accompaniment is a luscious mound of truffle mashed potatoes.
Other main course possibilities include: a moist and meaty pan-seared pork
chop sautéed with fava beans, leeks, morel mushrooms, and served with a Marsala
sauce ($25.00); grilled filet mignon consummated with an incomparble red wine
beef veal glaze reduction ($31.00); filet of red snapper dressed in a tiara of
rich crabmeat ($29.00); and a gargantuan 22-ounce porterhouse adorned with
Madeira sauce ($36.00).
Desserts are not for the faint of appetite. The tiramisù ($10.00), comprised
of layers of mocha, vanilla, and chocolate served with a mocha mascarpone
sauce, is excellent; the more down-home apple/pear cobbler adorned with caramel
gelato ($9.00) is also quite good; and the Strudel alle Fragole ($12.00)-- phyllo dough filled with strawberries, mascarpone, and ricotta companioned
by vanilla gelato and caramel sauce -- is simply awesome. The only
disappointment proved to be the nearly flavorless amaretto cheescake ($8.50),
which appeared to be suffering from a prolonged exile in the fridge.
Even after 18 years, at a time when many other establishments are coasting
along on their reputations, Panico's remains a class act in every sense
of the word. For that special occasion, or any occasion, this
charming restaurant continues to be the choice of knowledgeable and
Hours: Lunch: Mon - fri, 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.; Dinner: Mon - Sat, 5:00
p.m. - 11:00 p.m.; Sun, 2:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Business casual; jackets preferred but not required
Smoking: Smoking is permitted in the bar area only..
Reservations: Highly recommended
Parking: Municipal parking garage just across the street
Alcohol: License; award-winning wine list
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Web Site: www.panicosrestaurant.com