The story behind Pan Bon is itching for a movie adaptation: Brothers Luciano and Giancarlo Anselmi leave their hometown of Verona, Italy—the quaint, river-caressing city made famous by Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet—for a vacation in San Diego. After falling in love with the city, they formulate a restaurant concept that borrows from Pan Bon, their Italian bakery back home, in an effort, as their website puts it, to "introduce San Diegans to the take-out' gastronomy made in Italy."
Last week, the Anselmi brothers' Italian-themed food hall opened on the ground floor of the Ariel Suites building in Little Italy (1450 Kettner Blvd.). The sleek, high-ceilinged space is nothing like the rickety indoor marketplaces I frequented while studying in Florence a few years ago. Instead, Pan Bon feels very much like a high-end department store, with rows and rows of bite-sized pastries trapped like jewels in glass display cases.
I visited Pan Bon on Day 3 of its new life—my server said Luciano and Giancarlo recently shuttered the Verona branch. I didn't expect the place to be busy, and it wasn't. A trickling of curious passersby moved gingerly through the space, perhaps slightly intimidated—as I had been—by its polished, silvery newness.
The expansive pastry collection will lure you in, as it sits closest to the entrance and practically shimmers in a spotless glass case. There are blueberry-topped tarts and tiny, banana-bread squares and truffles dressed in sprinkles.
Steps away, in a separate display case, you'll find pillowy squares of focaccia dotted with tomatoes. The bread, along with almost everything else at Pan Bon—except for the salami—is prepared in-house, in an expansive, open kitchen. A small restaurant with roughly 10 tables concludes the food hall.
I ordered from Pan Bon's deli case, which features several cold salads and blocks of densely layered lasagna and deep-fried rice balls, or arancini, and then plopped down at a table in the cavernous place.
This is when the imperfections began to show: a generous portion of my order was clumsily forgotten, the chicken cacciatore had barely been reheated and the lasagna arrived late, avalanched by melted cheese.
Aside from the few slipups, though, Pan Bon offered a largely positive experience for an establishment barely in its first week. The chicken cacciatore was a solid dish flavored with meaty chunks of mushroom. Unhindered by thick ribbons of cheese, the lasagna was able to breathe and tasted delicious. Avoid the barley salad, though, which is bland and forgettable, but try the spinach-filled cannelloni and the deep-fried, breaded meatballs.
It wouldn't be an Italian establishment without a state-of-the-art espresso machine; you'll find the one at Pan Bon resting behind the pastries, beckoning you on your way out.
I'm no coffee connoisseur, but the first sip of my latte was neither restorative nor rejuvenating; great coffee often is, in my experience. Instead, it was the pastries, carefully arranged in a paper box, that convinced me Pan Bon is worth a second visit. They were too beautiful to eat—and then, suddenly, within seconds, they weren't.