The streetscape in the vicinity of Front and Market is fluidic, a work in progress. A few decades ago, not many Philly prognosticators would have predicted that just a few blocks to the north, the then-decaying neighborhood of Northern Liberties would morph into a hip, happening neighborhood – coveted turf in Philly's ongoing gentrification. But it has. Meanwhile, Penn's Landing keeps on keepin' on with a constantly improving, competitive restaurant scene – a living diorama where survival of the fittest remains the main engine of evolution.
Not everything in this celebrated quarter gets caught in the swirl of change. Historical sites like the Betsy Ross House, Christ's Church and Elfreth's Alley abide, preserved as they were (OK, with several upgrades) three centuries ago. Panorama can't match their Philly pedigrees, but then, neither can City Hall or Boat House Row. But Panorama, long a bastion for Philly gastronomy as well as a Mecca for oenophiles, has passed its twentieth year of operation despite the whirl of change sweeping the area's shift-shaper dining scene. The reason for Panorama's success? As the French say, "Les temps changent. Les bons goûts restent": Times change. Good taste abides.
Good taste at Panorama has been formally recognized by some of the finer national and regional wine and food publications. Wine Spectator, Santé Magazine, Wine Enthusiast, Decanter Magazine, Philadelphia Style Magazine, Philadelphia Magazine, Food & Wine Magazine and a host of others have honored Panorama's excellence in wine since 1991 when Wine Spectator awarded the then-neophyte its “Award of Excellence” and Philadelphia Magazine its “Best Wine List-Best of Philly” Award.
Since its boffo début, Panorama has copped enough awards to paper every wall in the place. However, such a garish display would be out of character for this charming eatery where the wine is always chilled and the vibe is always chill-out. A scattering of some recent awards dress the walls of the entrance corridor leading to the main dining room, but no adornments dare distract from two huge eye-catching full-wall murals. One graces the formal dining room, the other the wine bar. Each depicts pastoral, bacchanal Italian scenes and contributes to a transporting vibe of exotica.
“Bottle of red, bottle of white, whatever kind of mood you're in tonight” plays its timeless tune at Panorama. The main dining room is more formal, while the adjacent wine bar feels settle-in casual. That might seem incongruent for a room with plush red wall banquettes, white tablecloths, and three floor-to-ceiling columns inlaid with flashy green tile, yet the space manages to feel like a Tuscan wine cellar. The staff is down to earth and real, and many boast provenances from around the globe which broadens their culinary savvy. The driving force in the operation is William Eccleston, the sommelier who has made Panorama a de rigeur spot for Philly oenophiles.
“We have the largest wine preservation and dispensing system in the world as far as we can determine,” William asserts. “Actually we've applied for Guinness Book of Records' certification. Our preservation system pressurizes each bottle with inert nitrogen gas, which allows us to maintain 120 open bottles for an extended time period.” Panorama has since actually received the certification from Guiness and continues to maintain said status.
The wine at Panorama changes each week. By year's end, more than 800 different wines appear on Panorama's menu. Each is served in special Reidel over-sized stemware from Germany. William has cobbled several reasonably priced wine flights together that enable tastings of five different wines. The flights are suspended horizontally, wine glass by wine glass, on spokes from a large vertical black rod, like a spiral staircase in a castle where wine glasses are the steps. Since man does not live by wine alone, there's also a heady selection of specialty cocktails which change by the season.
Panorama centers the operation on Rosario Romano's Italian menu. A lifelong Philadelphian, Rosario bases his gastronomy on garden fresh ingredients, peppered with zesty sauces and winsome tweaks on some Italian classics. The Antipasti menu reels with fresh-from-the-garden, as well as the orchard, choices. During fig season, Black Mission figs arrive fresh and succulent from the owner's personal garden. After a kiss of warmth from the oven, the fresh figs–stuffed with creamy Gorgonzola and wrapped with savory prosciutto–arrive tableside atop a tangled nest of micro greens. The pungent cheese melds into the musky fruit and a truffle-honey glaze provides a sparkling sweet finish to a starter heavy on taste and light on heaviness.
Calamari alla Panorama yields a net's worth of fork-tender calamari on your plate. The baby squid is served poached in a spicy pool of olive oil, garlic, basil, fennel, and lemon zest, flecked with red pepper. The pepper is purposeful as well as decorative, delivering zippy blasts of heat to the garlicky broth. A soft mound of micro greens pedestals atop the calamari to provide both crunch and veggie succulence to this tender fruit de mer.
Several other delicious choices complete a scrumptious Antipasti roster. They include Lumache in Gondola, a savory Italian take on escargots, and Melanzane con Begetali e Fontina. The latter is succulent baby eggplant halves filled with sautéed red peppers, onions, capers and eggplant topped with melted Fontina cheese. It is served with roasted tomato and basil blush sauce. Delizioso.
Pasta dishes are available as appetizers or entrées. House-made spaghetti, pappardelle, gnocchi, tortelloni, tagliatelle, bucatini, orecchiette, agnolotti and risotto all grace the regular menu. Each is paired with a classic sauce and seasonal ingredients. Gnocchi con Provola Affumicata is a blockbuster in its own right, the handmade gnocchi confected with potato and ricotta. The combo adds depth without compromising the pillow-light texture that characterizes the genre's elite. Of course, to complete a dish the sauce also has to rock. At Panorma, a delectable tomato sauce flecked with fresh basil bolsters Italian claims that the San Marzano plum tomato with its bittersweet taste is the top tomato choice for sauces. Both fresh and smoked Mozzarella are added to this mélange for their particular formaggio riffs. Though clothes do not make the man, the sauce that clads great gnocchi – well, it sure helps.
Rosario is expert at choosing the right pasta for the right job. That's the hallmark of the expert Italian chef: Case in Point: Bucatini Modo Nostro. A powerhouse pasta that is surprisingly rare in many Italian kitchens, bucatini, long hand-rolled tubes, score on delicate texture. In this dish, the bucatini is the ideal pasta platform for the crackly bite of smoky pancetta tempered by the sweet hit of sautéed onions. Rosario chooses the slightly less sweet import, the Mount Vesuvio tomato, as the sauce base which heaps high and red atop a logjam of noodles. Elongated shards of Fiore di Sardo, a mildly nutty, piquant cheese similar to Pecorino, add tang and taste.
Reminiscent of menus in Italy, the selection for the Secondi Piatti, or second course, offers mostly meat choices: chicken, pork, veal, lamb, and filet. For the seafood lover, there’s always the Pesce del Giorno beckoning with the seasonal catch and a variety of creative preparations.
Vitello Mandolese features veal pounded into uncommon tenderness. The thin medallions are layered with prosciutto to dial up some sassiness in counterpoint to the smoothness of the veal. A glistening white cap of fresh buffalo Mozzarella carpets a woodsy topping of porcini mushrooms enriched with homemade truffled butter. A side of soft, herb-scented eggplant parmesan complements the meal.
In Pollo al Forno con Fregola, an oven-roasted boneless chicken breast glimmering with olive oil perches atop an ample mound of tender Sardinian pearl pasta counterbalanced with kernels of crunchy sweet corn. The pièce de résistance is the ambrosial black truffle sauce that irrigates each mouthful with the subtle earthiness that makes this a truly memorable dish.
Costate di Agnello con Menta is a tantalizing presentation of three succulent lamb chops sautéed in Madeira wine sauce. Served alongside an equal-sized continent of roasted fingerling potatoes and tender-crisp zucchini, they swim in a pool of fresh tomato sauce. Whiffs of mint emanate from the butter coating the lamb and dial up the richness of each forkful. Yet the vegetables are so delicious, even a lifelong carnivore might be tempted to engage the veggie hemisphere first.
For a sweet finale, the Poached Pear delivers on taste and presentation. The glimmering pear sits proudly in a lip-smackin' pool of Moscato syrup. The pear is stuffed with superb mascarpone cheese and topped with sprigs of mint. Three dollops of whipped cream, each capped with a hazelnut, form a triangle around the pear. The exquisite flavor and texture stands up to the elegant plating. Fibers are practically nonexistent, and the Moscato-based syrup harmonizes ideally with the mellow taste of the mascarpone.
Yes, 19 years of excellence and counting. To Panorama's neighbors like the Betsy Ross House, that's newfangled. But that kind of longevity in this restaurant 'hood – or any other – is star-spangled.
Insider Tip: Wine flights are an absolute highlight of the full Panorama experience and are without a doubt a must-try. With a world-record-holding selection, it's like you can't go wrong!