"This is why we moved to South Beach in the first place!" exclaimed my companion. It's something we used to say to each other frequently when we came from New York City almost a decade ago. It almost always involved a "shirtsleeve experience," like lunching in lushly planted tropical patios during times of year when our ski-jacketed friends in the frozen north were shoveling three feet of snow from their patios.
It also typically involved something like a stroll down Lincoln Road (back in its pregentrified days) to the cat lady's clothing shop, to read the handwritten notes tacked on the front window about her wandering feline's latest misadventures, and maybe to buy one of the bargain-priced handmade shirts she'd sew in the back room. The kind of experience virtually extinct in South Beach now that fancy renovations and rising rents have made the atmosphere feel commercial rather than casually creative. It's not something we say much anymore.
But we couldn't help saying it at Panna, as we relaxed in the corner café's informal terrace a few weekends ago, in sandals and tank tops, over a casual but creative midnight meal with other local-looking folks who were similarly enjoying the warm winter weather, cool live music, and prices definitely friendly to Frequent Diners. Of course Panna, which opened last spring to neighborhood word-of-mouth raves, is not in South Beach but in still-developing North Beach. You'll know that right away after looking at the tab. The place's most expensive dinner entrée (except for nightly specials) is $15.95, with most considerably less; no appetizer or pasta breaks into double digits. And an $18 bottle of truly decent Italian plonk sure blurs those geographical "where's hot/where's not" lines even further, I guarantee.
7305 Collins Ave, Miami Beach
305-866-0677. Open daily 7:00 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. (midnight on Friday and Saturday).
Actually we ordered only two glasses of red wine, but our concerned waiter insisted a whole bottle of Fendo Monaci Salice Salentino was an offer we couldn't refuse. "You drink just three glasses, it's the same price," he explained. "But we only want two glasses," we countered.
"What you don't drink you can bring home!" he proclaimed, a definite deal-clincher -- though possibly illegal; driving home with the open half-empty bottle in our doggy bag surely was. But the smooth light stuff was just as pleasant the next night, with our leftovers.
And leftovers are likely, because Panna's portions are major despite mini prices. A $12.95 charbroiled flank steak covered the plate, leaving barely enough room for sides of crispy mixed veggies and nonbuttery but flavorful whipped potatoes (that tasted a little like there was cheese in them). Furthermore it turned out that the steak, which came rare if not "bleu" as ordered, had been doubled over so half the hunk was concealed; unfolded, the slab was roughly the size of Massachusetts.
Among appetizers tried during three meals at Panna, beef carpaccio was the favorite, due to a generous drizzling of not just the usual olive oil but a wake-up-your-tastebuds creamy mustard sauce that was simultaneously sharp and sinfully rich. Similar size and mustardy sharpness characterized a caesar salad. One of my tablemates felt the heap of romaine was overdressed, but I found the quantity just right, since it had been applied just before serving; the coating, though heavy, did not therefore render the crispy lettuce soggy.
A crabcake was so big it was downright scary; really, it was nearly the size of my head. Savory spicing made the sea monster tasty, but thick and rather greasy breading was overwhelming and the general texture of the interior crude. Minestrone was quite different than usual, containing no tomato and no pasta. But the soup did not lack substance for lack of these ingredients; long cooking made the blend of potatoes, carrots, and other winter vegetables satisfyingly hearty.
Panna's pastas were inconsistent. On one visit, capellini pomodoro proved to be much thicker linguine, and much overcooked linguine at that. At a later meal, after a dining companion grilled our waiter to ascertain that the pasta was indeed angel-hairlike capellini and specified firmly that he wanted it al dente, the dish came perfectly cooked. The tomato sauce was the sort of simple stuff that's almost invariably spectacular in Italy, where tomatoes are falling-off-the-vine ripe; here the sauce was fresh and refreshing but one-dimensionally tart, lacking really ripe tomatoes' natural complex sweetness.
Ravioli pannisimo (stuffed with cheese and wild mushrooms, in pistachio cream sauce) sounded better than it was. The pasta, again overdone, was mushy; no wild mushrooms were discernible; and the sauce, though nicely nutty, was extremely heavy. Less cooking time and less reduction would make a more delicate dish.
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Those who always order extra cheese on their pizzas will appreciate Panna's mozzarella-packed pies. Crusts, however, were disappointing: thin-looking and crispy on the outside borders but thick and goopy in the middle, like undercooked dough. No burn bubbles, no crunch, no subtlety.
Since Panna is a bakery as well as a restaurant, lunchtime's "specialty sandwiches" truly are special. In fact a just-chewy-enough baguette -- miles better than standard cottony-soft submarine rolls -- as well as superior imported cold cuts (sopressata, prosciutto, and a dense cooked parma cotto ham), good romaine lettuce and ripe tomatoes, and a lovely balsamic vinaigrette dressing made Panna's deluxe sandwich the best Italian grinder I've had in Miami. I do have to confess, though, that the addition of some pickled Greek peppers and thinly sliced Vidalia onion to the half-hoagie I brought home, plus a minute under the broiler to crisp the bread crust, made the sandwich even better.
The bakery counter's pastelitos -- the pastry shells lighter than they looked -- were a mixed success. Meat pies were good, stuffed fully and spiced well. But both spinach and cheese pastelitos were half air inside, and the spinach filling was very overcooked -- metallic and dry as well as sparse.
Finally Panna is definitely not a place to skip dessert; if the huge portions leave you no room, get something to go. Coffee cake was not the breakfast pastry but rather an elegant torte, liqueur-soaked cake layered with mocha frosting, with chocolate "coffee beans" on top -- kind of a gentrified tiramisu. Not-too-sweet flan (topped with a super-sweet dollop of dulce de leche) was a blast of childhood comfort, a grownups' version of granny's egg custard. Best was mango mousse: The thin yellow cake layer topped with cloud-light mousse, coated with a glaze that was (unlike most dessert glazes) delightfully tart rather than cloyingly sugared, and crowned with a slice of fresh mango finished dinner with another reminder that this is why we live in South Florida.