Panizzo offers new take on old formula

by Brian Clarey

It’s kind of a rule in the food writing business – and good advice for all restaurant goers – that if a place is named after a dish on the menu, then you should probably order that item. If you’re at a joint called Smashed Potatoes, then by all means order the smashed potato.

And when I walked into Panizzo, the new café and bakery on Muirs Chapel Road owned by the same family that brought us Leblon, I had every intention of ordering the panizzo, a kind of South American pizza on flatbread with pomodoro sauce.

But I didn’t.

At the very last second I asked the woman behind the counter what the most popular item on the menu is. Without hesitation she replied, “The steak and cheese panino.”

Count me in.

Let’s talk about Panizzo the restaurant for a moment. It’s the brainchild of Walter and Ilma Vanucci, who have been running Leblon Brazilian restaurant and steakhouse for more than 10 years. But Panizzo is nothing like Leblon, where gauchos waltz between tables with skewers of broiled meats and the house caipirinha will put hair on your chest. Panizzo, for all practical purposes, is Panera, albeit locally owned and operated.

The menus bear more than a passing similarity – freshly made hot and cold sandwiches, innovative salads, homemade soups with the option of a sourdough bowl, a selection of fresh-baked breads and pastries.

Even the décor is comparable to your neighborhood Panera, with dark-stained woods and ceramic tile, whimsical flourishes on the walls and a café atmosphere. Panizzo offers panizzo and Panera sells Crispani, a thin-crusted pizza. Both have coffee; the kids’ menus are nearly identical; both have free wireless internet connections; and the names are so similar as to be confusing, at least to a rube like me.

But Panizzo offers rotisserie chicken whereas Panera does not. And Panizzo also has an extended menu during dinner hours.

There are differences in the food as well.

My steak and cheese panino came on a small loaf of bread that managed to be dense, chewy and crusty all at the same time – no small feat. It was filled with plenty of lean beef, coarsely shredded and sautéed with onions and green and red peppers.

An aside: Can anyone tell me why red peppers are so damn expensive? They’re like three bucks each. What the hell?

Anyway, my steak and cheese was loaded with them, and the bread was stout enough to hold up to the thin sauce. A winner. My side of pasta salad incorporated tri-color fusilli and a few bits of kalamata olive, onion and celery. Meh.

And afterwards I made for the dessert counter.

Here is where the differences between the two restaurants come into sharp relief.

Behind the bakery stand are examples of their baguettes, focaccia, croissants and European loaves and also the usual mix of cookies, cheesecakes, tarts, brownies, muffins, pies, Danish and the like.

But Panizzo also offers the kinds of things you can’t get anywhere else, like the checkerboard chocolate mango cake and an array of sweetbreads – the dessert and not the gland – that are a cut above the offerings in most local panerías. They also have sfogliatelle, an Italian pastry that looks like a clamshell and is stuffed with ricotta, and little bags of meringue candies.

I opt for a few cajuzinho, a traditional Brazilian dessert. They’re tiny things made from a kind of peanut butter fudge, dusted in sugar, hand-formed in the shape of a cashew and with a half a shelled peanut poking out of one end.

I’d like to see them try that at Panera.

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