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Best of Boston 2009

Panza Ristorante

A good North End restaurant without a line? Enjoy it while it lasts.
By ROBERT NADEAU  |  April 22, 2009
2.0 2.0 Stars

SEAFOOD RISOTTO Perhaps one of the most satisfying risotto dishes in the North End, in terms of its varied flavors and textures.

Panza Ristorante | 326 Hanover Street, Boston | 617.557.9248 | Open Monday–Thursday, 5–10 pm; Friday, 5–10:30 pm; Saturday, 4–10:30 pm; and Sunday, 5–9 pm | DI, MC, VI, CB, DC | Beer and wine | Access up threshold bump | No valet parking
Panza, which replaced Cibo in a small space just off the busiest blocks of Hanover Street, strikes a nice balance between red-sauce expectations, a bit of cheffery, and prices you can live with. No one looking for good old Italian-American food will be disappointed, and those who wander off that part of the menu will often be rewarded.

We began quite well with chewy, crusty Italian bread and fruity olive oil. On the wild side of appetizers, how Italian is "Wild Mushroom and Goat Cheese Spring Roll" ($7)? At least a bit, I suppose, if you think of it as savory cannoli, with honeyed sweet sauce, to boot. Most bites were terrific, though some had too much crispy shell and tasted like fried dough (actually, that's terrific in its own way). It comes with salad, which is a pleasant bonus, because most entrées are low on greens.

I've long argued that any French or Italian menu could be improved by the simple addition of spare ribs, but the spare-ribs appetizer ($9) isn't exactly what I had in mind. The three large, meaty ribs are neither baked nor barbecued but slow braised, and are very much done in the Boston style: falling off the bone with a sweet "Sicilian BBQ" sauce. An appetizer special of two seared sea scallops ($9) was fantastic, though the sweet-and-sour fennel relish underneath was cold, which was surprising and initially off-putting.

Our only weak appetizer was a small order of fried calamari ($7/small; $9/large), since some of the rings were not cooked through. Otherwise, it was a good fry job, with some cherry pepper rings and onions fried in. The mayonnaise and cherry peppers sauce, to tame the heat and bring out the flavor, was a clever touch, as we've come to associate pickled cherry peppers with fried squid. You get a large portion of rings, too, which is great. I didn't see the large size, but I suspect it could be split easily by four people.

Tagliatelle with shrimp and basil ($16), a red-sauce special and the stunner among our main dishes, had a neat game-changing gimmick: the shrimp were grilled. Turns out, this gives them an entirely different and more complementary flavor with tomato. The basil was impressively aromatic for April, and the rest of the dish was wide ribbons of fresh spinach pasta with the ineffable chew of the real thing.

Even a familiar linguine alla pescatore ($18) made from dried pasta was served al dente — not half-cooked as in Italy, but with a little uncooked core, as I like it. The catch, then, is to make sure that the seafood also isn't overcooked, which the chefs at Panza did very well. You can have this dish with red sauce, white sauce, or fra diavolo (red with pepper). We enjoyed the white-sauce version, which has garlic.

For serious garlic, though, you want to check out the lobster ravioli ($16). The sauce is described as Dijon cream, and may indeed involve some mustard, but it's the garlic that you smell from across the table. No matter, it's an excellent excuse to grab a few of the ravioli, which taste decently of lobster through the cream.

For all the risotto that has worked its way onto North End menus since the "North Italian" trend began, the seafood risotto ($16) was perhaps one of the most satisfying dishes in terms of its varied flavors and textures, including crunchy fresh vegetables and creamy yet slightly al dente rice. One misstep with this risotto, though, and you could end up with something like a 1960s tuna-rice casserole.

A superb piece of salmon ($19) was grilled beautifully, with three layers of flavor: richness, maple glaze, and a little char. But the butternut-squash risotto it came with was sweet and touched up with cinnamon, making the squash taste like candied yams. It won't please everyone. A gnocchi with confit duck special ($18) was also a mixed success. While the dumplings resembled cute pillows and were reasonably light, the cured duck meat, sautéed in a reduction sauce with spinach, still had a lot of salt. It might have worked better as an appetizer.

The wine list is simple and doesn't list vintage years. We had a glass of the house pinot noir ($6) and a glass of the house montepulciano d'Abruzzo ($6). Both were soft and quaffable, and I'm not sure that I could tell them apart in a blind tasting, so they fail the second test of being true to their style. Or perhaps the waiter made a mistake. But I doubt it, because on two visits service was fast, accurate, and positive. Dishes come out of the semi-open kitchen quickly — other than the risotto, which should take more time — and ours came to the table hot and aromatic. There are no desserts. (I'm pretty sure North End zoning laws must prohibit restaurants from selling sweets if they're located within two blocks of Mike's Pastry.)

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Related: Bina Osteria, Ristorante Damiano, Amici, More more >
  Topics: Restaurant Reviews , Beverages, Culture and Lifestyle, Ethnic Cuisines,  More more >
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