Dec. 4 2015 04:49 PM

The best Italian in Little Italy, but what is it?

Speck-Panini
Speck panini
Photo by Michael A. Gardiner

    If you build it, they will come. Build a business, build a restaurant, and if it is good enough the customers will show up. They'll find their way there. If Field of Dreams offered good restaurant business advice, Pan Bon (1450 Kettner Blvd.) in Little Italy will be fine.

    That had to be some of what Veronese brothers Luciano and Giancarlo Anselm had in mind when they opened a Little Italy emporium. The Anselms built out a spectacular space with first-class equipment featuring state-of-the-art show kitchens for Giancarlo's baked goods and Luciano's food. Their concept was to replicate their Verona bakery (of the same name) and add a restaurant with a healthy take on Italian-style gastronomy on-the-go.

    Build a great place selling great things and people will find you to buy those things.

    They definitely got the first part right. Anything Pan Bon does featuring Giancarlo's baking is great. The first thing that catches your eye when you come in the door is the case of gorgeous, jewel-like Italian-style pastries and mignons (mini-desserts). I'm hardly a sweets fanatic but those mini-desserts are show-stoppers—cannoli, tiramisu, panna cotta. But perhaps the best was the quadrato cioccolata e nocciola, a perfect square of chocolate and hazelnut highlighting the magical pairing of the two ingredients.

    Everything Giancarlo does shows off his talent with flour, water, butter and/or cream. As good as the pastries are, so are the breads. My pannini was no exception. As good as the bread was, the speck ham—imported from Italy's northernmost province, Alto Aldige abutting Austria—may have been even better. Think in terms of a more muscular prosciutto.

    Pan Bon's curatorial skills are on full display in the tagliare plate—an antipasto starter featuring a selection of imported Italian meats and cheeses as well as house-made giardinera (pickled vegetables). It would be no mistake to lunch on that tagliare plate alone.

    Perhaps the surprise of the place is the full-service restaurant in back, helmed by Chef Riccardo Brentegani, who like the Anselms, is also from Verona. The pasta is some of the best in town. From the perfection of spaghetti paired with a simple marinara to the spectacularly eggy carbonara, and a perfect penne al pesto, it was obvious Brentegani had his classics down pat. But when Brentagani went outside those classics he may have been still better, a lamb "lasagna" made with crepes, for example, was comforting, yes, but it managed to be simultaneously rich and light.

    Sadly, Luciano Anselmo has already left Pan Bon, returning to Verona. And on four visits "busy" would not have been an apt descriptor. Some of the problem may be the name: "Pan Bon" sounds suspiciously like "Au Bon Pain," a chain with little in common other than the name. Some of it may be the fact the place looks like a fancy bakery or kicked-up to-go lunch place more than a restaurant. Pan Bon, it seems, has yet to decide exactly what it is.

    But Giancarlo's pastries and Chef Brentagani's food may be the best Italian offerings in Little Italy. Pan Bon has, indeed, "built it." But will "they" come?

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