A surprisingly large staple of the American diet is based on and influenced by the cuisine of Italy. Though sometimes an afterthought, Americans consume Italian pasta, pizza, and even wine just as much as American cuisine. So when it comes to good Italian food,--and I mean really fantastic dishes--there are many options to choose from. Italian restaurants grace nearly every corner of any given downtown area, and San Diego is no exception. And even though we have such a vast selection, there is grace, charm, and, of course, extraordinary gastronomic provisions at the oldest Italian Restaurant in San Diego’s ever-expanding Gaslamp District—Osteria Panevino, an authentic taste of Italy.
Celebrating its 20th year in the business, Osteria Panevino has a menu and theme based on the creations of Chef Vincenzo Lo Verso, an Italian-born master of the kitchen. And what better place to display his creations than in the heart of the Gaslamp? My first visit to this fine dining destination is indeed exciting—I am previously informed that the term “panevino” is a hybrid word for both bread and wine, a combination that sounds appealing. And after dodging through the endless crowd of downtown visitors, it is easy to spot this establishment. It is presented simply; however, while other restaurants along 5th Avenue have nothing but empty tables, Osteria Panevino is already starting to attract a whole lot of attention.
We receive a warm greeting by Ana, our hostess, who immediately seats us directly behind her hostess station on their front patio. Osteria Panevino has a lovely interior themed after a traditional Tuscan kitchen, but the patio seems more fitting on a day such as this. Whether you decide to sit at the bar or at a table, each seating decision is ideal. The colors of reds, oranges, and earthy browns throughout represent the coziness and contentment that a kitchen atmosphere brings, buzzing with upbeat conversations over wine. The dining area features round tables donned with clean white tablecloths and shining stemware, the walls displaying large portraits of the Mediterranean countryside. To the left is their bar area, designed to mimic a customary wine cellar, complete with Osteria’s extensive and award-winning wine selections. But outside is a café-inspired setting, transporting us into a whole different country.
Today is a particularly grey and drizzly day for San Diego, and though pedestrians are heavily clothed in sweaters and jackets, the heat lamps on the patio keep my guest and I surprisingly warm. The external restaurant patio shares the same floor bricks as the rest of the sidewalk; but to us, we are in Italy, even though the only object blocking us from reality is a simple metal rail.
A friendly smile is given by our server, Ansel, who offers us a choice between fresh spring water and Pellegrino. I choose the latter, feeling in a bubbly mood myself, and gaze at the vast menus of beer and wine, as well as appetizers and entrees. I am no stranger to eating, though I am a stranger to traditional Italian terms and phrases—and the menu is full of potentially intimidating vocabulary. But Ansel is here to help. “We are all Italians here,” he explains with a grin. “We know our selections very well.” Suddenly, I am full of questions, and he is full of answers.
We begin with a bubbly glass of Valdobbiadene Prosecco, a sparkling white wine with a fairly minimalist and simple taste, and sip with delight while gazing upon the hustle and bustle of 5th Avenue in the afternoon. Ansel suggests some of his favorite dishes and pairing wines, to which we decide to take his recommendation. The entire staff of Italian workers are familiar with their comfort food, and a little nudge can go a long way.
Comfort, to me, comes in the form of carbohydrates. Osteria Panevino offers each table with a basket of their complimentary fresh bread, straight from their kitchen’s bakery. Served with garlic and parsley-infused olive oil, a straightforward combination, I cannot help but fill up on this flaky creation. The crispness on the exterior and the airy warmth of the soft middle is a staple of comfort that only fresh baked bread can bring, and when paired with the olive oil, I cannot resist grabbing a second helping.
What better to pair our wine and fresh bread with than a platter of fine imported cheeses? Ansel brings us a house cheese platter—a combination of Taleggio, Fontina, Gorgonzola, and Parmigiano cheeses, accompanied by green and brown olives, pears, roasted walnuts, and presented on a wooden board that resembles an artist’s color palette. Our selections are served drizzled with a bit of honey, offering a compatible touch of sweetness without distracting our platter from the rest of the components. Each cheese renders a different taste and texture, though my favorite is clearly the Fontina. The texture is between the moist, chewiness of the Taleggio, and the dry but potent Parmigiano. The flavor, though, is exquisite.
From the cheese we move to one of Ansel’s recommendations, Melenzane Farcite—thinly sliced eggplant rolled over rich and creamy ricotta and Parmigiano cheese, which is then smothered in marinara sauce and baked to excellence. It is love at first bite. The tenderness of the eggplant grants my mouth the ability to smile after being paralyzed with the warmth and complementary flavor of the cheeses and the marinara sauce. Standing as a traditional savory dish, this appetizer has an unexpected sweetness to it, offered generously by the marinara sauce and the eggplant. Ansel was right—this is unbelievable.
With one last sip of our Prosecco, our glasses are removed only to be replaced by a large glass of Italian Mezzacorono Merlot. My eyes bulge with marvel and wonder—the smell is appealing, and my first sip generates a spectacular flavor. Out of all of the selections of award-winning, fine wines that Osteria Panevino has to offer, Ansel surprises us with this particular selection.
He also amazes us with another one of his suggestions and apparent favorites, the Ravioli Di Aragosta E Asparagi. These raviolis consist of a mixture of ricotta cheeses and rich lobster, sandwiched between homemade pasta squares and topped with diced asparagus and parsley in a butter and sage emulsion. The thickness of the pasta has a very evident made-from-scratch egg and dough taste, and when paired with the creamy richness of the sauce, the result is nevertheless filling. Like our starter bread, we have been spoiled with these spectacular homemade products to the point that we can never look back to the travesty that is ravioli from a can.
For our entrees, my guest and I decide on two dishes that highlight the best of Panevino’s seafood and meat selections on the menu. For seafood, we try the Salmone Veneziano, a decision that rewards our mouths with flavor. This flaky salmon filet is served pan-seared and encrusted in pistachios, sitting atop of a bed of steamed spinach and enveloped by a chardonnay mustard sauce. Garnished with sprouts and a few fresh tomato cubes, this dish is presented as a more contemporary, fine-dining dish, but the taste is still Old World. The saltiness of the sauce is gratifying, and the plump salmon filet soaks up every last drop, each bite balanced and completed with taste of the steamed spinach.
Next comes a triumph of a meal: the Ossobuco Milanese, a succulent red wine braised veal shank served atop saffron risotto, embraced by a vegetable stew-like gravy that is thick with carrots, onions, and celery. The shank is presented luxuriously with a fresh rosemary sprig, and each cut falls off the bone with ease. Like the salmon and the ravioli, this dish is a combination of magnificence and effortless flavor, as if each component was meant to be paired together. And though this dish is indeed rustic, it is still extravagant and very rich in taste. Everything from the tenderness of the meat, the velvety smoothness of the risotto, and the heaviness of the red wine gravy is a taste worth experiencing.
Each dish we have tasted is consistently impressive and enticing, which only brings us into immediate conversation about our upcoming dessert. And why not? Dessert is the one course that guaranteed to muster up a smile. Ansel brings us out Chef Vincenzo Lo Verso’s own creation—his Pear Tart, served with slices of fresh, juicy strawberries and vanilla gelato. This tart consists of heavy almond past, which is a flavor that couples well with the texture of the sweet pear. Similar to the previous entrees, our desserts are on the same track of homemade creations—each dish is crafted with detail and from scratch in Osteria’s kitchen.
Lastly, our homemade Tiramisu is served dusted with cocoa and powdered sugar. With the first taste, I come to the conclusion that this is, hands down, the best Tiramisu I have ever tasted. Each layer in this dessert are jubilant in taste-- the layers of espresso soaked ladyfingers, whipped cream, and chilled mascarpone complete each other successfully. The softness of the cake and the bitterness of the dusted cocoa is a mouthful of heaven. My full but fickle stomach begs for more, and I cannot resist cleaning the entire plate.
The next thing we know, it’s completely dark outside. The Gaslamp District is suddenly lit up with glimmering lights and well dressed individuals, all of whom stop to gaze at Osteria’s tempting menu displayed at the entrance. We are full—very, very full—and absolutely satisfied. Moreover, we are genuinely surprised and excited. Anyone can make a bowl of pasta at home for themselves, but Chef Lo Verso has shined a new light on the Italian tradition, and has brought me to new conclusions about Italian cuisine as a whole. Osteria Panevino, though the oldest in Italian restaurant in town, remains at the top of their game, and every bite can tell you the same thing. It’s magnificent, and even more, it’s delicious.