My Fusilli Valentine

Well, the first thing you’ll notice is it wouldn’t be on everyone else’s list of “Best Places To Go For
By Brian M. Goldsmith

Well, the first thing you’ll notice is it wouldn’t be on everyone else’s list of “Best Places To Go For Valentine’s Day.” Il Panino Original—advertised as Boston’s first authentic trattoria and the birthplace of owner Frank DePasquale’s North End empire—attracts a more confident crowd. Panino is for couples secure enough to forgo the schmaltz—that never as charming as it sounds combination of Johnny Ten-Bucks-An-Hour on the piano and velvet banquettes; couples smart enough to avoid the twin enemies of romance: stuffiness and predictability; couples honest enough to admit what they really want—waiters who speak Italian, great food inspired by the Amalfi Coast, serious wine, worn-in comfort and a picture of Joe Pesci on the wall, looking very satisfied.

But first you have to get past Maria.

Its egalitarian spirit unbroken by success, Panino refuses to take reservations. Instead you’ll meet a well-dressed college graduate in her late twenties, conspicuously thinner than anyone else working there, pen and clipboard in hand. She’ll ask for your name and how many in your party and give you an estimate of the wait that is as attractive as it is wildly wrong.

Maria tells my four friends and me that it will be fifteen minutes, her chilly smile frozen in place. Twenty minutes pass, then thirty. Maria promises that she’s doing everything she can; people just won’t leave their tables. Forty minutes pass. We could leave and walk into a half dozen restaurants in the neighborhood that would seat us right away. But nobody wants to go anywhere else.

We haven’t seen our table, the menu or even the back of the front door. My party of five is famished and cold and forced to peer in enviously through the windows—no one wants to leave. This is Panino’s charm. It teases and pulls back and shows just enough leg (of lamb) to leave you hungering for more.

The restaurant is on two levels: below ground, a cozy, stony grotto with fewer than a dozen tables; at street level, on either side of a narrow corridor, about eight more, at one of which we are finally seated. And straight to business we go: Water! Wine list! Menu! Bread Basket!

All of which are delivered promptly by our Italian waitress—quite a character—who loves nothing more than plopping her not-inconsiderable backside onto the table’s edge and describing the specials as if her whole world depended on their appeal.

With a passionate Roman accent, she announces: “We have beautiful, beautiful fresh fish tonight. Scallops as an appetizer—olive oil, garlic. Magnificent! Sea bass, what we call branzino, with fresh tomato, sautéed and spinach and roast potato. Scampi! Oh, the size of my fist—grilled, with lemon and olive oil and with some wonderful risotto.”

The kitchen is very much Panino’s heart and soul; it’s not hidden in the back but embraced right where you come through the door. And as she goes on—over the din of laughing and clicking and conversation—we can actually hear the scampi sizzle on the grill, see the chef toss the branzino in a pan. And we are so tempted to order everything our waitress just described.

But we came for pasta, having been disappointed on previous North End trips. It is less expensive than the specials, and boy do those heaping, steaming plates of the stuff look amazing.

For appetizers, we order caprese—simply tomatoes, fresh basil and buffalo mozzarella, drizzled with olive oil. We also get a plate of prosciutto and some fried calamari. Each is ten or twelve dollars. Yes, anyone could make some version of these, just as anyone could throw eggs in a frying pan. But it takes a certain experience to know which tomatoes, from where, and how thick to cut them, and how much basil, and where do you get such incredible mozzarella, and what kind of olive oil. Too often, restaurants compensate for ignorance with complexity—trying to make up for a bad piece of chicken by piling the poor sucker with as many pretentious ingredients as can fit on the plate.

Panino knows the value of less-is-more, understands that simplest is often best. After sopping up every last drop of olive oil, and truly cleaning every plate, the main event begins.

We order fusilli with braised lamb ragu, penne arrabbiata (with spicy tomato and basil sauce), gnocchi alla sorrentina (potato dumplings with mozzarella and tomato), linguine carbornara (with parmesan and bacon), and ravioli con aragosta (with lobster).

More than al dente, they are al lingua—to the tongue as much as to the teeth. Everything was made in house—in that cramped kitchen we could see—and it shows. The tastes are fresh and rich and intense. Yes, the gnocchi is a little too doughy, the carbornara has too much butter, and the arrabbiata needs some more pepper. But these are details that don’t matter—because everyone is trying so hard, because you know this is what it’s really like in Italy, because this is the kind of place where the chef cares enough to get a spoon and taste his sauce and meticulously readjust.

We leave—three appetizers, five entrees, and one bottle of cabernet later—in great spirits, and try to remember what it was that made us so content. The style? Stucco and wood and celebrity pictures on the wall were fine, but we had all seen better. The music? Who knew whether music was playing? The lighting? Pale yellow and warm, but not even close to the candle-lit extravaganzas that could easily be found elsewhere. Yes, fantastic food, affectionate service—but also something more.

There was a spirit to this place, an infectious attitude of taking some time off and enjoying the company of people you care about.

And isn’t that Valentine’s Day at its best?