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Oct 28, 2007 07:39 AM

Pancuito in Hillsborough

What a nice little hole in the wall to be served chef’s choice.

We made reservations and ate there last night. The setting is unpretentious, yet comforting. Frank Sinatra style mafia songs played in the background the whole evening, something I really enjoyed.

But don’t think of this as an Italian restaurant, please. It is a Local restaurant that has a chef who greatly enjoys Italian and Southern methodologies.

The menu is short: you basically have a choice of 3-4 first courses, 3-5 entrees, and 3-4 desserts, no more. This is a feature of the restaurant, not a shortcoming. Prices run near $10 first course, $21-28 2nd course, $8 for desserts.

The wine list is nearly as short, 90% of which is served by the glass as well as the bottle, and is exclusively Italian wine. This is also a design feature. It turns out that at one point or another I’ve had nearly every wine on their list, they apparently share a distributor with Wine Merchant in Raleigh or something. All of them are drinkable, the pricing isn’t bad. Wine, beer, and non-alcoholic drinks are your options.

The menu changes frequently, apparently. One of the reasons for this is that the chef prefers to buy local food whenever possible, and they have an emphasis on organic food, humanely treated, antibiotic-free food, etc. In fact, we heard about Pancuito from Fickle Creek farm, locally.

The service is pleasant and restrained, not too formal.

A cordial glass of prosecco began our meal, right after we sat down. Water and tea were provided, and our wine orders were taken, specials were explained.

We ordered peach bellinis, and a bottle of moscato d’asti.

1st courses were veal meatballs over white beans, duck leg with grits & red-eye gravy, and beef carpaccio with fresh greens.

Main courses were stuffed trout porchetta, and lamb chops with polenta.

Desserts were a lovely fall pumpkin cheesecake, and a brown butter cake with cream cheese ice milk.

All dishes were fairly complex, with additional ingredients and com-pli-ca-ted seasoning, don’t be misled by my simple descriptions here.

The duck leg with grits and red-eye gravy was the best thing we ate, and competitive with any duck I’ve had anywhere, ever. The meat was flavorful, falling off the bone done (even the tendons and gristle was falling off), the fat was rendered down perfectly into jelly, and the skin was crispy and permeated with deliciousness. And as an old NC hick (that's me), you don't get any better than grits & red-eye gravy. A big “oh wow” moment.

We had no serious complaints about any of the food, the service, the wine, the atmosphere. It was cozy and comforting, pleasant, warm, not too formal, not stuffy at all. The food was right up there with other high end places across the triangle. We are happy to add this restaurant to our rotation of nice places to eat around here; which include Piedmont, Bonne Soiree, Il Palio, Fearrington, Squids, Panzanella, etc.

In truth, going here for some reason reminded me of the first time I ate at Irregardless, back when Arthur Gordon opened it in the 70s, and it reminded me of going over to eat at Bill Neal’s new restaurant when he opened Crook’s Corner. Neither of these restaurants were high-falutin’ haute cuisine, neither wanted to be, both were institutions in their own right and well deservedly so. Regardless of the fate of Pancuito, I expect to be hearing from Aaron Vandemark for a long time.

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  1. I am reviving this topic because we've eaten here twice over the last month and Panciuto is probably my favorite place in the Triangle right now. A few things have been tweaked since this was written seven years ago but our experience is very similar.

    This is really the best I've seen around here for farm-to-table, local ingredients. If I go on a Saturday, each dish is comprised almost entirely of what I've seen earlier in the day at the Durham market.

    Dishes are made complex now from diverse and (literally but tastefully) layered ingredients, but unlike seven years ago the seasoning is entirely uncomplicated - the essence of each component shines out, like Alice Waters with North Carolina goodness.

    If I had a minor complaint this past month, it would be that desserts weren't getting the focus needed. For example, an app contained a couple of the best strawberries I've eaten ever (really), but desserts were still in winter mode.

    Really wonderful food and atmosphere. Limited menu, but everything on it is great.

    1 Reply
    1. re: D R C

      I agree. I have eaten here only once, but I'm pretty sure that I would choose Panciuto over any other place in the Triangle.

    2. Andrea Weigl wrote about Vandemark recently at in context of the Beard awards this year. I wanted to share part of that here because it really helps me understand how significant it is for him to be nominated so many times, and why Christensen might get the top prize while I like Vandemark's place a lot more :-).

      "It’s even harder to become a finalist, as Christensen has done. The list of 400 semifinalists becomes the ballot for the larger pool of judges made up of committee members, the regional judges and all previous James Beard award winners. A chef becomes a finalist for an award by getting enough of that pool of 600 judges to eat their food or dine at their restaurant to be able to vote for them. The winner, of course, got the most votes.

      That’s where Christensen has an advantage over Vandemark. She runs a small restaurant empire in Raleigh. He runs one fine-dining restaurant. Christensen can leave her restaurants in able hands to go cook at food and wine festivals in Atlanta, Charleston or Aspen, increasing the likelihood that a James Beard judge will taste her food. Vandemark is essentially a one-man show with a small crew of kitchen help and cannot leave his restaurant to do that.

      I had lunch with (Vandemark) recently. We talked about a number of things: what I had learned about the James Beard voting process, how hard it likely would be for him to become a finalist and what it might be like one day if and when he’s no longer on that list of semifinalists."

      1 Reply
      1. re: D R C

        I had found this so interesting when I read it on the N&O blog. This method of voting does a disservice to small operations off the main path. If a non-metro chef is nominated they must really be doing something outstanding!

      2. Someone ought to ask Frances Mayes (of Under the Tuscan Sun fame) what she thinks about Pancuito.

        She lives in Hillsborough now when she's not in Cortina.

        Personally, I'm an Antonia's fan, myself.