Restaurant review

Pane e Vino in Little Italy boasts new menu, old world charm

For The Baltimore Sun
Cheers to the wine selection, well-executed food and service at Little Italy's Pane e Vino.

The narrow streets and twinkling lights of Little Italy have been a part of the city's cultural fabric for decades. Both tourists and locals love it for the charm that comes, in no small part, from restaurants that have earned generations of fans.

But change occurs, and when it does, it can improve even a much-loved, time-honored restaurant community. The Little Italy of today boasts several restaurants that seem to have been around forever, but it also has some newer spots that are worth a look.

Pane e Vino is one of those new places. In mid-March, the family behind Cafe Gia opened Pane e Vino in the space next to the restaurant. It started its life as a wine bar with a bit of food. Now, after a few months of tweaking and experimenting, Pane e Vino has a new, full menu — one it shares with Cafe Gia.

Though diners can order old Gia favorites and new dishes on either side, the Pane e Vino experience remains distinct from Cafe Gia's. With attentive, skilled service and mostly well-executed classic Italian meals, a meal at the wine bar is a memorable one.

Scene & Decor Pane e Vino's space is narrow and deep, with a long bar down one side and a handful of tables available for small groups and couples; during our Wednesday night visit, the bar was more than half full at all times.

Low lights and dark wood furniture gave the space a cozy feeling during our visit, even though the weather was warm enough for the large front windows to remain open. In the back of the space, a roaring fire — blazing from a huge flat-screen TV — cemented the mood.

Appetizer Pane e Vino's updated menu includes a combination of Sicilian classics and Northern Italian-influenced dishes, reflecting the backgrounds of the restaurant's owner and its chef.

One of the newer dishes, a hearty appetizer of sausage-topped polenta ($13), dressed in a pale sauce and topped with cheese and a scattering of peas, looked a bit gloppy, but its creamy, slightly spicy flavor more than made up for its appearance.

Grilled octopus tossed with chickpeas, red onion, capers and greens ($11.95) had lovely flavor, but the octopus itself was a touch overcooked. We enjoyed it, but the texture was a little drier than we would've liked.

Entrees The current menu features several seasonal dishes. Butternut squash ravioli ($18) — served in brown butter sauce and topped with sage — was lovely and refined. We also liked an earthy bowl of wild boar pappardelle ($18) — one of the newer dishes and one with a clear Northern Italian influence.

The handmade sheets of pasta were doused in a thick, well-seasoned sauce of tomato and boar, braised until tender and falling into bits. It was the kind of wintry dish designed to be eaten by the light of a fire (electronic or otherwise).

Our favorite entree was also the lightest: a big bowl of clams over pasta, dressed in a sauce of orange juice, white wine and pistachios ($18). The combination of shellfish, sweet citrus and meaty nuts could have been a risk, but the flavors were subtle, the clams cooked nicely and the pistachios handled with care so they added interesting crunch, instead of odd texture.

Drinks At its heart, Pane e Vino is a wine bar and its selection is appropriately well-edited. The by-the-glass list was less Italy-heavy than we expected, but one of the handful of Italian options — Zaccagnini Montepulciano ($9) – proved to be a terrific choice, fruity and food friendly.

The bar also has a short cocktail list. From it, the Spicy Sicilian ($10) was a good bet. A mix of peppery vodka, limoncello and kumquat, the drink delivered a jolt of heat that was fun without being overpowering.

Dessert We finished the meal with a pretty, traditional and generously proportioned cannoli ($8) — and another glass of wine.

Service Though the bar was fairly busy during our entire meal, a lone bartender juggled every table with skill and ease. Even when he was behind the bar, we noticed him eyeing our wine glasses and checking plates.

His demeanor — and that TV fire — helped set the tone for the evening; it was warm and relaxing, like all the best old restaurants in Little Italy. And the new spots, too.

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Pane e Vino

Backstory: In March, the Cafe Gia team opened Pane e Vino as a wine bar, in the space next to the Little Italy restaurant. Earlier this fall, after some experimentation, menus for the two restaurants were combined and a new seasonal menu was introduced.

Parking: Street parking, pay lots and parking garage

Signature dish: The vongole e pistacchi — clams and pasta in a sauce of wine, orange juice and pistachios — is a treat, with bright flavors and unusual textures.

TVs: One

Where: 408 South High St., Little Italy

Contact: 410-685-3300; search "Pane e Vino of Little Italy" on Facebook or go to cafegiabaltimore.com

Open: 4:30 p.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday-Thursday; 4:30 p.m. to midnight, Friday and Saturday

Credit Cards: All major

Reservations: Accepted for large groups, on weekdays

Bottom line: Go to Pane e Vino for the wine, but stay for the well-executed Italian food and attentive service.

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