Pane e Bene, Westport
★★ [Very Good]
When word got out that Angelo Capponi, who managed Tarantino’s in Westport for over a decade, was opening a restaurant of his own in town, the local eat-out crowd was clamoring to get in before the paint dried. Westport doesn’t go with flow, it creates it and fights to be first. Then it’s off with the old and on with the new.
But seven months after its soft opening, Pane e Bene is still going strong. Capponi is still the draw, welcoming every customer like a long-lost relative who just happened to turn up at mealtime.
Angelo Capponi has more sources in his head than celebrity chefs have in their computer data bases. He knows the restaurant business inside-out and understands his particular clientele better than many a survey-oriented restaurant consultant. “We cook what people like,” he says.
We look around. Everybody’s chowing down like there’s no tomorrow. The menu doesn’t look particularly exciting but the plates flying by look delicious. I want what she’s having, what he’s having, what they’re having.
Surprises arrive. What is this lovely open-face layering of roasted red pepper, sweet Italian sausage and herb-scented bread crumbs, tenderly melting together? An ethereal version of stuffed pepper.
Prince Edward Island mussels, glossy blue-black in their shells, piled high in a shallow bowl, are as good as they look, in a marinara sauce that, almost as an afterthought, delivers a spicy kick.
Caesar salad plays it straight. No tableside hoopla, no trendy deconstruction, just neatly trimmed, crisp romaine in a dressing where classic Caesar flavors—garlic, lemon and anchovy among them—blend into the medley that gave this salad its enduring fame.
Where Pane e Bene gets its arugula I wish I knew. I’m forever looking for what arrives on my plate—a salad of young arugula, picked before it gets too bitter, served before it begins to wilt and, in this instance, graced with a refreshingly tart lemony vinaigrette.
Every table is taken, Capponi is everywhere and our waiter is moving double-time with a smile on his face. Even so, our pasta order fails to arrive before our entrées are served. Our waiter is horrified and apologizes profusely. Having ordered the gnocchetti as a sort of side for the table to share, we say not to worry, we’ll try it another time. (When we do, we discover that Gnocchetti Verdi al Tartufo—small green gnocchi in a black truffle cream sauce—is one heck of a heavenly dish. Not to be missed.)
Our entrées, two meat and two fish, cover the bases nicely and because they are accompanied by appropriate accoutrements (light, crisp-crusted potato croquettes, julienne of zucchini, onions and baby carrots), sides are more or less optional. But there are a few interesting ones on offer—pan-fried potatoes; sautéed escarole with pine nuts and cranberries; sautéed mushrooms with prosciutto and peas.
Entrée portions, like Goldilocks’ choice, are not too small, not too large, but “just right.” Veal scaloppine, often ho-hum elsewhere, is regal here, robed in Marsala wine sauce with mushrooms and, for a crowning touch, roasted chestnuts. For once the veal tastes like veal, and its tender texture plays well with the silkiness of the sauce and mealy crunch of the roasted chestnuts. In contrast, fillet of trout is clean and simple—some might say dull—but after too much fancy eating that’s sometimes exactly what one wants.
Branzino alla Contadina is one of those recipes that not only look and taste good but also make sense. Paving a beautiful piece of sea bass with thinly sliced potatoes before roasting it keeps the fish moist. A splash of pinot grigio, a hint of garlic and thyme—allora, less is more.
A list of specials is provided every night. We have vowed to stick to the regular menu but how could we resist the blandishments of filet mignon topped with lobster tail for $31? It’s a big lobster tail, too, tender and sweet.
Defining Pane e Bene’s modus operandi as cooking “what people like to eat” understates a passion for fine ingredients that characterizes the menu from beginning to end. The mozzarella is buffalo, the arugula is wild, the double espresso is a Sicilian blend.
To keep things interesting the dessert list is mutable. Choices, arranged on a cake plate, are brought to the table for inspection and selection. It’s a carefully curated collection—four opulent options—so we can try them all. The tiramisu is house-made and, as to be expected, is a tribute to its kind. What looks like a chocolate-covered ice cream bombe is filled instead with dreamy chocolate mousse. A classic cannoli does the genre proud. So far, so familiar, but what surprises me is a dessert I discovered on my first trip to Paris, where I trotted from pâtisserie to pâtisserie for a week sampling the rum-soaked cream-filled pastry the French call baba au rhum. Here it is in all its decadently delicious glory—at an Italian restaurant in Connecticut. Grazie. Merci.
Pane e Bene is what it is, small, crowded, noisy, strictly Italian—perhaps too strictly for some. The menu is choice but limited, the wine list considerably less than a mile long. Aside from the owner’s beaming presence, there’s not a lot of self-hype. No professional publicity campaign, no chichi designer decor, no pandering to celebrities. In Westport, celebrities come unbidden and at Pane e Bene, Capponi makes all of us feel like an Academy Award winner. I thought Westport didn’t need another Italian restaurant. I was wrong. This one’s a keeper.
Pane e Bene
1620 Post Road E., Westport, 203/292-9584; paneebene.com
Open Tuesday through Thursday noon to 10, Friday noon to 11, Saturday 5 to 11, Sunday 5 to 9. Price range: appetizers $8 to $15, entrées $14 to $35 (lobster and filet mignon), desserts $6 to $12.