When I first reviewed the snazzy spot on the ground floor of the then-new Hotel Monaco ("Bread Alert," July 1, 1999), the lacquered focaccia in the window was a good indication of just how authentic and interesting the Italian fare inside would be. All the place needed was a wicker-bottomed bottle of Chianti to complete the cheeseball effect.
But today there's no fake bread in sight -- just true Italian food.
Chef Jennifer Jasinski may have grown up in Santa Barbara, California, graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and worked for Wolfgang Puck for eleven years, but she's an Italian at heart. So after Panzano's original chef, Ben Davis, moved on last year, Jasinski was a wise choice to replace him. The restaurant asked her to rework the menu and up its Italian quotient, and up it she did.
She kept the fresh bread that was the best part of my first Panzano meal. It's made in the wood-fired ovens of the restaurant's in-house bakery and arrives warm at your table: an abundance of herb-flecked focaccia, sun-dried-tomato baguette, a chewy rustica that goes well with a tapenade made from sun-dried tomatoes, capers and olives. The pizzas, too, come straight from that oven, sporting a super-crispy crust and covered with such intriguing ingredients as sweet figs and Gorgonzola or sausage, fennel and goat cheese.
While Davis had struggled with the finer points of classic Italian dishes, Jasinski excels. She imbues her ribollita, a Tuscan-style bread soup, with the ideal undercurrent of parmesan and vegetable essence while keeping the number of chewable components -- Swiss chard, cannellini beans -- in perfect proportion to the comforting broth. But she can also use traditional ingredients in exciting new ways. For example, the quince al forno brought a baked quince (it tastes like a cross between an apple and a pear) stuffed with a light Gorgonzola mousse, with candied walnuts offering a sweet touch against the fruit.
Both of our pasta dishes were wonderful. The ravioli stuffed with four cheeses -- a housemade ricotta, parmesan, Fontina and Gorgonzola -- came smothered in a thick wild-mushroom ragoût that pitted its musky flavors against the rich cheeses. And mezzaluna pockets packed with the sweet flesh of roasted kabocha squash and mascarpone cheese had been blanketed with a nut-kissed brown butter and leaves of fried sage, turning them into something positively exotic.
Since we were able to taste only a fraction of the many appealing entree possibilities, it was a blessing to find that Panzano offers a tasting plate of desserts, allowing us to sample a tart of bananas and caramel as well as a thick, creamy tiramisu and a trio of fruity homemade gelatos.
I'd found the service at Panzano top-notch before; if anything, it's better today. Even the upscale atmosphere seems classier, since the Tuscan touches now involve more flowers and less fake bread. You pay for all of this opulence, but the fabulous food is worth the dough.