Yet another Italian restaurant, I think, hearing Nicola's has expanded to Hyde Park Square with Pane e Vino, in the space once occupied by J.B. Winberie's. No way will they make it with the same pricey fare they offer at their Over-the-Rhine location. And what is with this fascination with Italian restaurants? Don't people eat anything else? I decide to check it out.
Wisely, the owners have divided the long, narrow space into three simply decorated dining rooms, so you don't feel that you need to take up spelunking to visit. An aquarium separates part of the space, and the front of the house is devoted to the bar and some dining tables designated for smokers. I like Pane e Vino both times I visit. Sure, it's noisy when things get busy, and the service needs some refining. But the tasty food more than makes up for those failings.
In traditional Italian style, the menu features five courses, but beware: These are not moderate portions. Rather, they reflect the lamentable trend in American restaurants towards gargantuan servings (is this the secret to the fascination with all things Italian?), thereby limiting you to only two or three courses instead of the entire taste sensation of the meal.
One can circumvent the trend, however, by sharing a course. That is fine with the folks in the kitchen, who will divide an order and serve it on separate plates. When my husband and I attempt this, our server confides that no one has been able to eat five courses without resorting to splitting an order. And even when we share first a salad and then a pasta from the Primi Piatti, we cannot finish our separate entrée selections from the Secondi Piatti (though we manage to do justice to our own appetizer and dessert).
What's good? In the Antipasti, I like the Inzimino ($7.25), a stew of spinach and calamari served with crostini, toasted Italian bread. It's a pleasant change from the usual fried calamari. I also like the Toasted Ravioli ($5.95), stuffed with a flavorfully spiced veal mix, pan-fried and served with a Bolognese sauce. It's good, but I prefer the spinach and squid. Also very nice is the Arrotolata ($7.95), a summery concoction made with fresh mozzarella rolled with prosciutto, tomato and basil pesto, and served with a mix of artichokes and peppers. It's delicious with the good chewy bread provided to each table.
The Pane e Vino Salad ($6.50) is a virtual salt assault with Gorgonzola, anchovies and capers topping slices of ice cold tomato. Even out-of-season tomatoes work with this salad, and the saltiness is tempered by a dollop of creamy cheese.
In the Primi Piatti section, the Tortellini alla Crema ($10.95) is rich and filling with prosciutto, mushrooms and onions in a cream sauce spiked with sherry. Definitely for sharing. Penne Strascicate ($11.95) is not much lighter. This is flavorful, with familiar meatballs and a tomato-based sauce, but the Tortellini is more interesting. For garlic lovers, the Linguine con Vongole ($11.95) is a traditional white clam sauce with a heavy kick of the bulb.
Mercifully, almost half the Secondi Piatti choices are fish or seafood, because by now you need something light. The Arctic Char ($14.95) comes on a round of polenta with vegetables and a pool of honey pepper sauce which seems an unlikely companion, but it works. The Cod Alla Livornese ($16.95) is simply prepared with a fresh tomato sauce laced with capers and olives and a side of summery vegetables. The hearty Lamb Shank with Polenta ($16.95) is disappointingly bland, though the meat is falling off the bone, but I could make a meal on the cheese enriched polenta with the braising sauce.
Desserts, like those at Nicola's downtown, don't live up to the rest of the meal. They are pretty but lack punch, and you are better off finishing your dinner.
In keeping with the restaurant's name, the various breads, toasted and fresh, are stars here, with chewy crisp crusts that you want to tear your teeth into. We do not live by bread alone, of course. Wine, also, is featured, and a nice array of Italian and domestics is available. You can work your way through the list, for many come by the glass.
So, yet another Italian restaurant. This one, I think, is going to make it. Somebody got smart and kept things simple with good food and fairly reasonable prices. Sorry, no reservations taken. Wait in line like the rest of us. ©
Pane e Vino
Go: 2724 Erie Ave., Hyde Park Square
Hours: Dinner: 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 5-9:30 p.m. Sunday.
Payment: Major credit cards accepted.
Vegetarian Friendliness: Appetizers, salads and pastas
Other Information: Reservations only available for groups of five or more. Parking available on the street and in the metered lot in the rear.