Call ‘em refrigerator poems like the William Carlos Williams classic, call ‘em lunch poems per Frank O’Hara, call ‘em throwaways. Whichever, counter to Emily Dickinson’s dictum to “tell it slant,” they pretty much tell it straight. It’s not the telling but the it itself that’s slanted, the subject matter, our world. As Williams also said, “No ideas but in things.”
All of which is just to say: go to Panzano. There’s my review. If you haven’t been, or haven’t been in a while, go; it tends to get lost in the shuffle of chefs & next big blurs precisely because it’s so solid, such a sure thing, so easy to take for granted, helmed by a chef whose passion doesn’t reach its logical extreme in restless ambition but rather rests in the daily determination to keep on keeping on, doing what she does best. In an era in which franchising is the rule of success rather than the exception of selling out at even the highest culinary echelons, it’s so heartening to come across people like Elise Wiggins—or, in Boston, Gordon Hamersley, or anyone else who puts all of his/her heart & soul in one place.
Actually, it had been a while since I myself had made it back there until recently, only to be undeservedly rewarded for my absence with a meal that was as smooth from smart to finish as it could be. No service kinks to work out; no chefly flourishes that weren’t totally assured. Wiggins knows her ingredients & honors her own sensibilities through & through, & the result, be it a signature dish or a seasonal one, is always an exact balance of creamy & bright, silken & meaty, refined & rustic. Has anyone coined the term sophisticrustic yet? So-FIS-ti-KRUS-tik. Someone should. Done.
And it all starts with that bread basket accompanied by one of the best spreads in town, a way tangy blend of olive oil, balsamic, sundried tomatoes, kalamatas, garlic & anchovies.
And it all should start, every time, with the
crespelle ai funghi,
tender, brown-bubbled crepes wrapped around sauteed Hazel Dell mushrooms & set in a pool of truffle-scented fonduta. Here’s what true Piedmontese fonduta isn’t: mere fondue, mere melted cheese with maybe a little wine & starch. Here’s what it generally is: fontina melted with butter, egg yolks & milk/cream—yielding just the sort of luxuriousness you might expect from the land of Nebbiolo & tartufi bianchi.
The dish is rich enough, indeed, that just a simple salad suffices, even for me, before the main course. In fact the Director & I split the grilled Caesar that night, or rather they split it for us. (It occurs to me croutons don’t assume a way, shape, or form I don’t like. Flat, fat, soft, crunchy, lightly golden, deeply golden, plain, herbed—so long as they’re not stale [stale croutons & croutons made from stale bread being 2 different things], they’re all to be admired, aren’t they?)
Not that we needed, as it turned out, all that much of a breather. What followed were 3 (my ma was in tow) of the most refreshing entrees I’ve had all year, maximally flavored without being overly caloric.
Topping a list so top-heavy it threatened to topple was the black-pepper fettuccini d’estate with green beans, microgreens, toasted almonds & dried blueberries in a lemon-basil sauce. The name alone (d’estate means “of summer”) is a warning it won’t be around much longer, so step on it if you want to partake of such snappy stuff. While the blueberries & almonds take you to some kind of fascinating parallel moment in space where granola & pasta can coexist, it’s the lemon-basil sauce, so ordinary-sounding, that actually gives the whole thing its zing.
As is the case for most serious eaters, it’s the rare chicken dish that catches my eye, since it’s typically the most compromised item, meant to flatter pedestrian tastes. To my own tastes, outside of Asian cuisines, that sad truism extends to shrimp as well; I almost never order it in Euro/American restaurants, because the offerings thereof so often err on the bland side.
Not so at Panzano. These jumbo-babes are stuffed with Medjools, the most sugar-smacked of all dates; swathed in house-cured pancetta; sprinkled with gorgonzola; & set over properly puddingy polenta. Amid all the increasingly annoying injections of bacon into sticky buns & bubble gum & petit fours & whatnot occurring these days, it’s nice that someone remembers that the light sweetness of shellfish complements the heavy salt of pork better than just about anything.
The Director’s pesce fresco del giorno was swordfish,
& while it was perfectly well prepared—almost overdone, but not, still just moist enough—the accompaniments were where the dish was at, from the velvety pea broth to the even earthier mushroom risotto to the crispy-juicy fried shallots on top.
No ideas but in things; in Panzano’s things is the idea that I should partake of them far more often.