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Seasoned Veterans 

Panta Rei

Wednesday, Apr 17 2002
The names Fabrizio Laudati and Alessandro Iacobelli aren't the first to arise when people discuss the city's top restaurateurs. Still, these two fine gentlemen have done wonders toward increasing my love of Italian cookery. I have yet to visit Bella Trattoria, their well-regarded flagship restaurant in the Inner Richmond, but I reviewed Baldoria, their second venture, about a year and a half ago and found that its food achieves a wonderful balance of rusticity and sophistication. (I also believe that the names Laudati and Iacobelli must enter any discussion of the city's finest antipasto plates.) That positive appraisal included this line: "Baldoria just plain delivered."

I'll say the same of their third venture, Panta Rei, which opened recently in the former home of the U.S. Restaurant. Some consider this odd, triangular building a cursed location (Bandol and a second version of U.S. Restaurant both perished here). Perhaps they're right, and if Panta Rei can't break the hex, the site should probably be bulldozed. At their newest endeavor, Laudati and Iacobelli have opted for a more informal style of restaurant than Baldoria. An everyday menu of appetizers, panini, and pastas -- none priced higher then $10 -- is supplemented by a handful of daily specials. I wouldn't drive across town to eat at Panta Rei, but if I was strolling through North Beach in search of a casual Italian meal, it's the first place I'd go.

Panta Rei is a brightly lit, cafe-style spot finished with dusky red walls and a gleaming, stainless steel open kitchen. The funky stools at the bar could have been inspired by an episode of The Jetsons, and wide windows offer sweeping views of the street life out front. I have only one complaint about my experience there: When Barrie and I arrived at 8 p.m. on a Thursday, the place was so packed that we were seated at the lone table near the door, where an unkind draft knocked our menus to the floor every time someone exited or entered. Fortunately, the turnover is high, so we upgraded to a better table a few minutes later.

In keeping with a trend I've noticed (and read about) at other Laudati/Iacobelli-owned restaurants, the waitstaff at Panta Rei was both charming and attractive. For example, our Italian waiter would be considered a hottie by many. He attempted to woo me from the get-go by praising my choice from the 57-bottle, largely Italian wine list ($19-95). Sometimes waiters do that no matter what you order, but in this case the approval was justified. The wine, a Camp du Rouss barbera d'Asti, may be the finest $30 splash of grape I've ever had in a restaurant, with distinct notes of cherry and ripe plum playing off a smooth, subtle earthiness. We sipped, we raved, and to be absolutely sure it was as magnificent as it seemed, we ordered a second bottle. We finished about half, and became enamored of our hottie waiter when he flouted the laws that hold society together by allowing us to take the rest of the bottle home.

Along the way, we enjoyed a meal that was spectacular for its price range. Nothing on the menu is too elaborate, but the execution was nearly flawless, and the combinations had a satisfying, timeless feel. Consider, for example, the appetizer special, a fan-sliced pear poached in white wine and served with barely dressed greens, Gorgonzola, and walnuts -- a marvelous, classic -- juxtaposi-tion of flavors. You should probably be flogged if you skip the antipasto della casa, which is similar to the version I had at Baldoria. At Panta Rei, the offerings included grilled eggplant and zucchini with an accent of mint, sweet, sultry roasted peppers, thin-sliced salami rolled into cute little cones, and a knob of luscious mozzarella. We also enjoyed a squid salad tossed with bell peppers, onion, celery, sun-dried tomatoes, marinated artichoke hearts, and -- a superb final taste -- slices of juicy, refreshing orange. For $6.95, you'd be hard pressed to find a finer assortment of nibbles in San Francisco.

Panta's pastas are equally splendid. Choices run from a humble fettuccine with tomato sauce and prawns to mushroom ravioli with asparagus sauce, squid ink linguine, and gnocchi with a lamb Bolognese. We opted for toothsome spinach ravioli filled with ricotta and fresh greens, served with a luxurious mascarpone sauce. A second plate, tre paste (three pastas), would be ideal for sharing as a light meal or as a primi if you're dining Italian style (pasta followed by a secondi). Here, slender penne came coated with a simple pink sauce with a hint of acidity; chicken ravioli were bathed with a rich, white, cream sauce; and melting gnocchi were served with a delicately spicy tomato sauce. Eaten alone, any one of the three would have been a fine choice, but the combination for less than $9? It's not rocket science, but it's a great idea. I hope other restaurateurs steal it.

The trio theme continued with our first entree, the grigliata mista (mixed grill). Fillets of salmon and halibut were flawlessly grilled so that a crisp, smoky exterior surrounded a silky, barely cooked center. The third element -- slightly tough swordfish -- was forgettable, but if you figure in the bed of mixed greens, an unassuming lemon sauce, and sides of roasted potatoes, zucchini, and eggplant, you end up with a massive, tasty heap of nourishment. Our second entree, rabbit braised in a dark, flavorful porcini sauce, also came with potatoes, zucchini, and eggplant (somehow, I don't think the sides are made to order). The meat fell off the bones in moist, luscious shreds to produce a dish that could bring out a person's animal nature. Had decorum not prevented me, I would have abandoned my fork and knife and torn that delectable bunny apart with my bare hands.

Though I'm not sure it's official policy, my experience at Panta Rei and Baldoria suggests that if you order enough food, dessert will be free. It's happened to me twice now, so I wasn't surprised when we asked our waiter for the dessert menu and he shook his head no, as if to say, "There's no need for that." A few minutes later, he presented us with a platter that included a thin slice of cheesecake topped with cherry-Campari sauce, a classic tiramisu with a sharp, coffee bite, a poached pear sprinkled with cinnamon, and a fruit salad sparked with tart bits of kiwi. None of the desserts was outstanding, but all were quite good, and once again, we had to appreciate the variety.

After a first visit, I usually ask myself whether a given restaurant achieved its potential and whether I'd go back. Here, the answers go far beyond "yes." All hail Laudati and Iacobelli!

About The Author

Greg Hugunin

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