Authentic Italian comes alive at Panini’s Cafe

in Lunch Bunch by

By Pamela Brownstein
Nestled at a large table on the second floor of Panini’s Cafe on Bay Street, the Lunch Bunch had a great view of Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park and was treated like royalty as we ate one exquisite plate after another.
Being there brought back wonderful memories for me because my husband and I filled the entire floor with out-of-town guests and relatives during our rehearsal dinner the night before our wedding two years ago. It was good then, but now, under new ownership, the food has only gotten better.
For starters, our cheerful server Amanda brought us the antipasto plate, the peel and eat steamed local shrimp and the almond crusted calamari made with spicy aioli and fra diablo sauce and burnt honey. The antipasto plate was piled high with salami, mozzarella, prosciutto, red roasted peppers, artichokes, olives and more. It was so colorful, it almost looked too good to eat. The calamari was tasty with a little kick and the warm shrimp were awesome.

Antipasto starter platter.

Although Kim had to eat and run, she got the Mediterranean shrimp and grits, an entree that adds an Italian twist to the Southern staple with pancetta polenta, olive and tomato sauté.
Gene had his regular, the chicken cheese steak hoagie: herb-roasted chicken with mozzarella and a side of fries.
Buck ordered the oyster bisque with bacon special as a starter, and it was rich and outstanding. He also got the roasted chicken salad panini, a yummy option since the apples, raisins, pecans and garlic mayonnaise make the chicken salad slightly sweeter than usual.
Tess tried the artichoke and mozzarella panini with fire roasted tomatoes and thin sliced prosciutto. Served with a side Caesar salad, the sandwich was top-notch. With all the options of quality food, Tess declared this to be her favorite Lunch Bunch experience so far.
Elizabeth ordered the house salad that includes romaine, creamy tomato dressing and olive puree, while I opted for the mixed green salad made with poached pears, Gorgonzola cheese, walnuts and lemon vinaigrette (hold the Kalamata olives because I am not a fan).

Blanco pizza.

April, Elizabeth and I shared one of Panini’s famous brick oven pizzas. After some deliberation, we agreed on the large Blanco, a white pizza with roasted garlic, olive oil, mozzarella, fresh basil and extra toppings of prosciutto. The pizza was so good, and with more than 10 varieties on the menu, you can always find a combination that’s a must-have.
It seemed impossible to hold back from dessert with so many amazing homemade Italian offerings at our fingertips. We all shared the mini chocolate cannolis; the apples and ice cream made with apple turnovers and maple walnut ice cream; the créme brulee trio, which comes infused with a variety of flavors that change daily, but ours featured one chocolate, one rosemary and one pickled pumpkin; and, what Italian meal would be complete without a piece of traditional tiramisu. Though all were good, the apples and ice cream was a big hit, and Buck and I agreed that the tiramisu was a definite must-have.
We met Executive Chef Paul Donella, the man behind the magic, and owner Paul Thompson who both stressed their focus on farm to table ingredients. Thompson, who has been the new owner since April, said, “As much as possible, we use fresh local products.”

Traditional tiramisu.

Make reservations and try this seasonal menu while you can, because come January, the restaurant will be closed for a month for renovations. Working with Laura Tucker Designer, Thompson has big plans to open things up inside and create a cleaner, sleeker more cohesive look.
Although it will be hard to improve upon a place that is already so popular among locals and tourists, we think the upgrades sound upscale and can’t wait to see the results.
Panini’s is located at 926 Bay St., on Waterfront Park. Lunch is served daily from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., dinner from 5 p.m. Call 843-379-0300 or visit www.paniniscafe.net.