It's supposed to be an off-the-beaten-path Italian trattoria placed tantalizingly close to the Upper King design district, a quaint, secluded tavern with a few patrons sipping esoteric wines from the Langhe and nibbling a plate of artisanal salumi. And if you catch Pane e Vino on the right night, it is all those things, but most often the popularity of the place makes it more akin to the Piazza San Marco — a bustling hot spot for alfresco Italian on the large outdoor patio.
In the heat of summer, the dark, cool interior fills quickly. Sometimes you will wait considerably for a seat, but the bar at the end of the room is welcoming and the staff amiable and entertaining. It is a working space, with worn tables and rustic charm. Order a bottle of wine and your waiter might pull it down from the loaded shelves that teeter along the side wall — this décor is not prop, but function. The dim light makes it a romantic place to take a date; the pleasant outdoor patio to the east provides a perfect spot for meeting friends. In the end, people of all kinds beat a regular path to Pane e Vino, and for good reason.
The antipasti alone could sustain one for days. There are lighter offerings. The mussels are particularly attractive ($12.50), and the deep-fried porcini mushrooms sprinkled with truffled pecorino cheese and shards of sea salt ($8.50) provide a perfect foil for a glass of Sangiovese.
I usually start with the Melanzana del Gosto ($7.50), a rich stack of grilled eggplant slathered with melted buffalo mozzarella and a southern Italian red sauce. It has the heft to be a small meal on the way to a night in the pubs, but it is light enough to prelude a larger entrée. Or we go for the classic Salsiccia e Fagioli ($8.50), a split lamb sausage, not unlike a merguez, served over meltingly tender cannellini beans that have been bathed in tomato sauce.
A selection of appetizers, the cheese plates, the charcuterie, the brilliant, paper-thin, air-cured bresaola — all of it makes for a perfect early evening patio excursion after a day of King Street shopping or a snack before a night on the town. But you can also eat a full meal at Pane e Vino and not be too disappointed.
Big eaters — or your cousin who's afraid of dishes written in foreign languages — will want to go for something like the Lasagna del Mi' Nonno, or Grandma's Lasagna ($12), a big, hearty portion in the Italian-American style, full of rich tomato, cheese, and crispy bits of pasta that are baked brown on the edges of the pan. And the bowl of Spaghetti alla Bolognese ($12.50) surely constitutes satisfying, rib-sticking fare. They have pesto and pappardelle, gnocchi and ravioli, and most is a good deal for the price; none of the pastas exceed 15 bucks. But the cioppino runs $25 (or $40 for two), and the steak just $2.50 less. For the price, they could do better.
A recent fish o' the day special — red snapper, beautifully prepared and profiled earlier in the day on the City Paper website — caught my eye. I called my favorite local food snob and asked her to join me for dinner, which she promptly declined based on the asparagus accompanying the fish, and I was sad. I think she had a point. A daily special should bring what's fresh and good today to the table, and in our city that means local produce. When I got my fish, it was fantastic — juicy, fresh, a perfect summer dish with local heirloom tomatoes lolling around it on the plate. But laying beside was that asparagus — big, fat, a half-inch around at the base, and mushy, with that bland flavor not unlike the asparagus at the grocery store this time of year with a tag that says Peru. Also on the plate was a square of polenta, which reminded me of wet sawdust sprinkled with parsley. I ate the fish, left the rest for the dishwasher, and walked out feeling perplexed. My friend texted me a picture of her fish with local butter beans at another restaurant.
And therein lies a problem. Pane e Vino certainly displays the great promise of a hidden gem, even if everyone in town discovered it years ago, but there is danger in such popularity. Complacency can creep into the corners quickly when the door constantly swings open with new diners, and to remain relevant, they should innovate their offerings. The daily special should sing with the flavors of today, especially in the height of summer, when asparagus has long since towered into seeded fronds in the field and so much else can be had in perfect ripeness. Preparations should be tightly focused and quality assured. Otherwise, they're just a great wine bar, with a few sound pastas and a steak that should sell for a third of the price.