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Osteria Panevino

722 Fifth Avenue, Downtown San Diego

I've always wanted to try Osteria Panevino, and when my hometown friends Robert and Gail blew through just after New Year's, they furnished a perfect excuse. When we first met, they'd just returned from several years' residence in Rome, where Robert composed electronic music and Gail taught ESL. Robert (a computer musician turned computer magician) recently took on a once-a-month side gig as a restaurant critic for the SF Weekly. Choosing a place to meet for dinner, I decided to take advantage of the couple's expertise in Italian cuisine. Panevino's convenience to their hotel cinched the deal.

I also suspected that Panevino might be a decent possibility for upcoming Valentine's Day, with a lighthearted, romantic ambiance and warm Italian service -- and, it turns out, menu prices steep enough (about $75 per person for three courses, plus beverages and tax) to demonstrate that you can support your sweetie in the style to which s/he'd like to be accustomed. My friends were astounded: "In San Francisco," Robert said, "there are so many high-end Italian restaurants coming in, there's too much competition for them to charge anything like this."

Osteria Panevino means "inn of bread-wine," the quintessence of the Italian table. It was the first restaurant venture (back when the Gaslamp was still a bit raunchy) of the group that now includes Greystone (the steakhouse) and Osetra (the glitzy Vegas-style fusionista seafood house), both in the same neighborhood, and with even higher prices. Initially, Panevino may have been just another Gaslamp Italian, but over time it gained a lasting reputation for excellent food -- and gradually, the prices rose to exceed those of its cognates in "upscale" San Francisco.

The dining room, in a historic building, is faux rustic and faintly kitschy, with a long, antique wooden bar, brick walls, and colorful murals of Italian rural scenes. But don't look for red-checked napkins and Chianti-bottle candles -- the tables are formally covered with white linen cloths. The walls are lined with comfortable banquettes. Panevino's pizzas used to draw raves and are still shown in the website's video feature, but the ovens were recently removed to make space for more banquettes.

We decided on a classic family-style Italian dinner -- antipasti (appetizers), a shared pasta course (a primo), and entrées (secondi). The best of our appetizers was a fritto misto (mixed fry) of calamari, shrimp, zucchini, and artichokes, garnished with arugula. The batter was medium-light, the textures and flavors interestingly varied. The creamy sauce spiked with coarse mustard (like an eccentric tartar sauce) held our interest, complementing the calamari especially.

Mozzarella Campagnola features "homemade mozzarella," which proved similar to the mozzarella fresca sold at better supermarkets -- not that there's anything wrong with that. It comes with succulent, herbal, house-marinated artichoke slices, roasted red and gold peppers, and a few cremini mushroom caps, all dressed in extra-virgin olive oil. A pinch of salt from the table shaker gave the dish the final spark it needed.

Funghi Ripieni, large cremini mushroom caps stuffed with crabmeat filling, are served atop a sea of thin, gentle, herbed sauce. The stuffing is a bit dry, but if you upend the caps into the sauce for a second, life returns. The sauce is also a delicious dip for the first round of bread -- puffy squares of focaccia. (The second round are slices of dense Italian bread of the sort sold at Little Italy's Solunto's Bakery.)

Carpaccio Traditionale offers thin slices of raw filet mignon topped with arugula and sliced Parmesan. The dish included a lot of greenery with a tasty dressing but only a little beef. "This is not really traditionale," said Gail. "I was expecting a plate of meat, not a salad."

When we told our waitress we meant to share a pasta course, she suggested one specifically designed for a foursome -- a trio of house-made ravioli, each available on the menu separately. (She didn't mention that the price would be $60, which seems a bit out of line. The menu includes plenty of shareable pastas of at least equal interest for a third that price.) Each of us received a small plate with one raviolo of each type. One was stuffed with spinach and ricotta in a creamy wild-mushroom sauce. One was filled with lobster, shrimp, and zucchini in a light, creamy tomato sauce, sweetened with carrots. And, best of all, one was filled with ground lamb, with a wild-mushroom sauce spiked with fresh rosemary. All were tasty, and the lamb ravioli were haunting, with their pairing of rich meat and the piney herb. The skins weren't thin but were well enough cooked to be silky.

As is so common at restaurants, the best of our meal was now behind us -- except for a superb entrée of osso bucco Milanese, braised veal shanks. "Look at this!" said Robert: The Goliath-size hunk of meat arrived with a dainty fork inserted into the marrowbone to extract the seductive contents. Half the fun of eating a shank is enjoying the rich, fatty marrow, and Osteria made it easy to do this with manners and dignity intact. The marrow was soft, not dried out by overcooking, and the meat was fork-tender. It sat atop a bed of salty saffron risotto with flawless firm-soft texture. Robert added a lot of Parmesan, which only made it tastier -- and also indicated that the cheese had been freshly ground.

In Gamberoni Ripieni, prawns are stuffed with crab, scallops, and rock shrimp -- and also, all too apparently, with a lot of bread crumbs, which dominate and flatten the seafood flavors. The overall effect was vaguely "nice," so that even as you chewed, you forgot what you were eating. The asparagus risotto served with it was not a bed but a tall cliff, a free-standing wall of rice -- untraditional but tasty. Underneath was a pleasantly tart white wine reduction.

Saltimbocca proved another divergence from tradition. The name means "jumps in the mouth," referring to little packets of veal scallop wrapped around prosciutto, mozzarella, and sage. Here, the lightly breaded scallop pieces were flat, topped with the garnishes, and robed with a sherry wine sauce, all served over spinach. The veal was routine. Rather than jumping into our mouths, we had to convey it there with silverware.

The most serious disappointment was the bistecca Fiorentina, a "Tuscan-style" 24-ounce boneless rib-eye steak. This was our most costly entrée and should have been a stem-winder, so it deserves a little extra, uh, rant. "In Italy, the justly famous bistecca a la fiorentina is nothing more than a thick Porterhouse steak generously seasoned with salt and pepper, rubbed with extra-virgin olive oil, and grilled over hardwood coals, preferably olive wood," writes my old friend Bruce Aidells in his Complete Meat Cookbook. "What makes the steak so wonderful is the exquisitely tender and very flavorful Chianina beef, which is usually cooked blood-rare." Eat one of these in Florence, as I did some 20 years ago, and you'll always want another. To reproduce the dish here, Bruce suggests buying a thick, "at least USDA Choice" steak and marinating it in garlic and olive oil for two days.

I didn't mind the substitution of rib-eye for porterhouse -- rib-eye is usually the most "beefy" tasting American steak cut. But given that Panevino is a sister to Greystone, I expected outstanding meat, not a routine slab of bovine protein. (The Turf Club's garlic-marinated rib-eye comes closer to the Tuscan recipe at a third of the price, even if you do have to grill it yourself.) Our steak was big but not good. The meat had gristly edges and lacked the depth and carnivorous vibrancy that comes with rich marbling and careful aging. "It tastes like week-old dead cow," said Robert. "It doesn't seem like it had much aging, and it's too tough to be one of the higher grades -- I'd guess maybe bottom of the Choice at best." Most of the beef came home with me, and I had the chance over several lunches to marvel at its mediocrity. It came with oven-roasted potatoes and a barely noticeable veggie medley. (In Florence it would have been white beans, spinach, and those same potatoes.)

I could not verify the grade of beef because the chef, bicycling between three restaurants, was unavailable for several calls before my deadline. I learned from Panevino's hostess that the well-regarded Giacomo Serafini was no longer there and that there was no on-site chef de cuisine who could discuss the food, merely "cooks." Executive chef Alberto Morealle now oversees all three restaurants in the group. He does visit Panevino regularly, but his office is at Osetra. This may explain some of our disappointments and my overall sense that Panevino is no longer fully living up to its glowing reputation. The food is still, mind you, very good -- but not the "four stars and heavenly music" that I'd hoped for.

My one fear before going was that the service staff might resemble those at sister restaurants Greystone and Osetra, where some of the waiters seem to be auditioning to play goombahs in a remake of Goodfellas or The Godfather, Part XIII. (Oy, everybody's an actor!) Here, instead, they are Italians from Italy (not Mulberry Street), and they are charming, accommodating, eager to help you enjoy your evening. The wine list offers a clutch of exorbitant Super-Tuscans but also some great bottles at reasonable prices. Robert and I unanimously zeroed in on Sicily's delightful Lachryma Christi to accompany our first course, and he chose an enjoyable, modest Italian Felluga Merlot for our entrées.

Did we want dessert? We relented when our waitress told us that the cannoli are made by "an old Sicilian guy who lives in Little Italy." I hoped they'd resemble the superb cannoli that I used to buy from another "old Sicilian guy" at a bakery across the street when I lived in Little Italy, Manhattan. The shells served at Panevino were indeed excellent -- crisp, dark, and fresh, with none of that refrigerator taste that spoils so many local cannoli. But the filling was too heavy, too rich, too sweet, not the barely sweetened pouf of ricotta, orange peel, and bittersweet chocolate bits that I grew up on. We also tried a lemon torta, which proved an amiable piece of lemon cake -- soft, moist, creamy.

Getting back to the Valentine's Day issue: Choosing an Italian restaurant isn't a bad idea, considering how hard it can be to get a reservation for the usual California-French big-name suspects if you haven't done it by now. And there's nothing wrong with enjoying a little sensual carbo-loading on decadent pastas, or feeding each other nibbles of exquisite veal marrow -- nearly as sexy as raw oysters. Other gala Italian possibilities are De Medici (Gaslamp Quarter, specializing in seafood), the superb Primavera (Coronado), Sante (La Jolla), Osteria Pescatore (seafood, Del Mar), Firenze (Encinitas), and high-end Vivace (Carlsbad). Or you can skip the marrow and the restaurant and go straight to the oysters, as my partner and I always used to do for Valentine's -- buy a dozen or two fresh, make a light sauce, pry 'em open, and let the good times roll.

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