July 24 2012 12:50 PM

Early takeout is a good thing; dining-in later proves soggy

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Panini and sfogliatelle pastry
Photo by Amy T. Granite

Like a Gremlin, food tempts me the most after midnight. I'm a slave to nocturnal feasting—meaning that during the day, I tend to nosh on this or that, reserving my stomach's capacity for the main act. I'm elated to find daintily portioned grub on the cheap, because I'd rather starve than eat a granola bar or carrot sticks leading up to a late-night supper.

Usually when I visit Cafe Zucchero (1731 India St. in Little Italy), I'm on a mission for the sweet stuff—its name, after all, means "sugar" in Italian. It's my go-to spot for when I'm entertaining or attending a potluck and in charge of dessert; why bake when beautiful, individual confections—from cannoli to my favorite, the banana-cream napoleon—are $3.50 a pop.

On a recent sunny day, my eyes diverted from the sweets to another portion of the display case, where several little panini looked perfect for a picnic at nearby Amici Park. When I inquired about the price, I found out that pastries aren't the only thrifty score here—all the sandwiches, this gal said, are priced at $2.50. Bella!

You can have the panini pressed or take them away cold; I went with the latter for two items. Fresh mozzarella, tomato and basil on ciabatta with a drizzle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar was one, along with a prosciutto variety, also with fresh mozz and basil on a cute, mini-baguette. I was glad not to resist a scoop of coconut gelato, creamy and flecked with shredded coconut; the entire order set me back a whole $8.

Let's get something straight right now: Everything tastes better on a picnic. Expectations are lower because food has traveled and, besides, a park typically doesn't offer food to its visitors. Despite these circumstances, my date and I truly felt the panini were delish; the bread was fresh, not soggy, and the basil was still green and crisp. Five bucks for two tasty sandwiches makes it hard to bitch about anything, but, a return visit cast a shadow on this otherwise perfect story.

I went back to Cafe Zucchero—later in the day than when I picked up the first round of sandwiches—and had a very different experience, first with the service. Previously, I was told all the sandwiches in the case were $2.50; but this time, the gal said that some are $3.50. Fine. I asked which were which, and she said she didn't know. When I pressed, she repeated herself, put her hands on her head in exasperation and said, "Sorry," even though there were two other employees nearby that she could've asked. Weird.

The extra buck wasn't a big deal, but the soggy sandwiches were. It's unfortunate that the early bird gets the worm here and late-afternoon visitors pay full price for sandwiches that aren't fresh. Grab 'em to go before 1 p.m. unless wilted, brown basil is your thing. And from 3:30 to 4 p.m., don't expect to sit on the back patio; I was discouraged from doing so, even though most tables were empty leading up to dinner service.

Amy blogs at saysgranite.com and you can follow her on Twitter @saysgranite.


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