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Panico's
103 Church Street
New Brunswick, Middlesex County, New Jersey
(732) 545-6100

By The Artful Diner
Special to nj.com
11/28/2005

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 Solano.

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 ample.

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 discriminating diners.

Cuisine: Italian
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
Price: Expensive
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Web Site: www.panicosrestaurant.com

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