Gambling in New Jersey is officially confined to Atlantic City and the horse tracks, but I’m adding Panico’s to the list. Dining at this New Brunswick Italian restaurant is definitely a roll of the dice.
Bewilderingly inconsistent though it may be, Panico’s is popular with Rutgers parents, birthday partiers, and execs dining on expense accounts. Its 140-seat dining room was recently renovated with angular banquettes and tinselly amber pinlights that cast a warm cosmetic glow. A section of wall is reserved for signed glossies of Jersey luminati—governors, senators, Jets, Nets, Sopranos.
Founder Frank Panico first owned a butcher shop and pizzeria in Orange. He opened Panico’s in 1987 in what is now New Brunswick’s theater district. “It was all abandoned buildings and litter-filled lots back then,” recalls his son Anthony, who helps out his mother, Grace, who took over in 2003 upon Frank’s death. “Panico’s was the pioneer. My dad took a big risk.”
My three dinners at Panico’s were just as chancy. My first meal was the best. Panico’s was nearly empty that Tuesday. My dining companion and I were greeted like long-lost cousins. We chose a cozy window table and ordered a $17 bottle of Malbec from the half-price wine selection in effect Sunday through Tuesday. A retinue of personable servers, originally from Mexico and Argentina, chatted us up and made menu recommendations.
The waiters’ suggestions were spot-on. My appetizer, two large stuffed calamari, were crammed with ground Italian sweet sausage, onions, garlic, and cherry tomatoes bound with egg and bread crumbs. I happily traded plates for my companion’s paella-like risotto. Panico’s chef, Nestor Ramos, prepares a different version daily. This recipe was savory with bacon, smoked chicken, peas, tomato, and mascarpone that rendered its Arborio rice even creamier.
Entrées were more than competent. Panico’s makes its own pasta every morning, and my linguini malafemmina, a less-spicy take on seafood fra diavolo, was nicely al dente, with noticeably fresh seafood and a pleasant San Marzano tomato-based marinara. My companion’s osso buco, while not the tastiest veal shank I’ve ever tried, was good sized, with a thick, glossy, red-wine reduction and buttery mashed potatoes. Only our house-made desserts disappointed: gelati in wan spumoni flavors of vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry, and a dry, overbaked, warm chocolate cake misrepresented as a soufflé.
My next dinner, on a busy Saturday night, was a disaster from our slap-in-the-face greeting by a teenage staffer: “How many?” Service was confused and slow. We were mistakenly brought another table’s entrées. Seafood salad proved listless. Sautéed clams and mussels, insufficiently flavored with garlic and chili, were almost as dull. Shrimp with pignoli nuts were grim: tiny, heavily battered, with no trace of pignoli. The only appetizer my party of four finished was a creamy, well-made pumpkin soup.
My congealed (and possibly reheated) osso buco was undone by a candy-sweet dried-cherry sauce. Only two bites were granted to a grainy, undercooked risotto strewn with acidic cherry-pepper slices. Spinach gnocchi, even more undercooked, was rubbery and inedible. On the other hand, seafood ravioli had been boiled almost to mush, and its lobster cream sauce was tasteless; ditto the vodka sauce on flabby penne alla vodka.
Our server diplomatically offered a substitute. Filet mignon wrapped with applewood-smoked bacon was grilled exactly to order and served with a boat of delectable four-cheese sauce.
Panico’s warm chocolate soufflé cake was not overbaked this time, and the cheesecake was a decent cream-cheese version. But strawberry crème brûlee was far too sweet, and tiramisu, flavorless.
I returned a third time. Our server was curt but swift, the chow much improved. An antipasto starter was skimpy but tasty. Panico’s winning house salad, sprinkled with pignolis and prosciutto bits and topped with thin sheets of Parmigiano-Reggiano, proved even better with a side of excellent Caesar dressing than with its usual balsamic vinaigrette.
An attentively cooked, massive veal chop was served with Chef Ramos’s good mashies and a too-sweet port-wine reduction that I poured off. Ahi tuna steak was glorious in its black-pepper crust. But desserts were again nothing special: a pair of cannoli with excessively sugared filling, and a piña colada “pie” consisting of vaguely coconut-flavored, sweetened, whipped cream cheese in a goblet.
Based on my dispiriting dinners, I can only conclude that Panico’s has been coasting on its reputation. Four years ago, Grace unfurled Panico’s Brick Oven Pizza across the street, with wood-burning ovens and a wallet-friendlier pasta-and-pizza menu. Save your gambling money for AC and the tracks, and eat at Panico’s pizzeria instead of the mother ship.