WEST CAPE MAY - We had obviously confused Panico's Bistro with another restaurant a block or so away. It was the candles on the metal tables and chairs in a little courtyard that finally caught our attention.
Now concerned about a dress code at Panico's - considering our meal would be served in a former chapel - we were relieved to see the maitre d' dressed in jeans and a sweater, since we were clothed in a similar fashion.
The dress code and the atmosphere both were casual, along with a menu that offered everything from brick-oven pizza or a selection of entrees, soups, salads and pasta dishes.
The menu at Panico's might best be described as Mediterranean, since it seemed to consist of equal parts Italian and Greek. The music selection varied from Andrea Bocelli to Greek bouzouki tunes. Our server was assuredly from the Italian side of the family.
Our chatty server explained that the focaccia was made fresh daily and served with a seasoned olive-oil mixture. Crisp and flavorful on the outside, unexpectedly light and airy inside, we found ourselves tearing the bread in half to help pick up extra olive oil on the craggy surfaces.
Assorted spreads ($7) were served from a sectional plate offering three distinct choices. A discussion ensued with our server, who disagreed when we described the dish as it was written on the menu.
The listed "bruschetta" referred to the Italian mixture of chopped tomato and red onion only rather than the toasted-bread base with the same topping that was listed as another appetizer. The Italian bruschetta mix was paired with Skordalia, a Greek potato, garlic and olive-oil puree and a wonderful feta cheese and Kalamata olive dip all served with wedges of pita bread.
An appetizer simply called octopus ($10) arrived in the form of several tentacles arranged over a base of mixed lettuces with some roasted red peppers and a simple dressing of olive oil, parsley and lemon. The octopus had been chargrilled and sauteed, then bathed with a simple olive oil, lemon and parsley sauce.
From a list of recited specials, we made a smart choice of moussaka ($12). Our server described it as Greek lasagna. Layers of potato, eggplant and ground meat were topped with a tasty marinara sauce and a bechamel sauce that puffed up, souffle-like, when baked. We loved the suggestion of cinnamon somewhere in the background flavors. If only we had remembered to bring a bottle of red wine.
Baked cheese tortellini ($14) was a large portion of ring-shaped, stuffed pasta with mascarpone cheese and a thyme marinara, crusted smoked mozzarella and Parmigiano Reggiano cheeses.
Our server brought a dessert tray to our table. We chose what looked like a coconut-cream snowball ($7). Layers of white cake alternating with cream reminded us of a packaged treat we had as a kid, and not in a bad way. This was garnished with an artistic squirt of raspberry sauce courtesy of our server. Cappuccino gelato ($7) was served in a martini glass, fresh-brewed and strong enough that we didn't feel the need to order coffee - not that it was offered. It wasn't.
We thought the room looked austere in only two colors, a kind of rust red above a textured ivory wall separated by black woodwork and just a few touches of artwork spread around the room. If modern art is open to our interpretation, the room included an aerial view of a field of shiitake-mushroom caps and some hammered-metal scroll-shaped pieces. The centerpiece of the room was the large, tiled pizza oven that serves as focal point for activity, heat and a light source.
Since silverware was wrapped and stored in a basket by the front door then delivered tableside along with the menu, the white-clothed tables seemed too austere. Fresh red carnations, a frosted votive candle and tiny salt and pepper shakers were the only decorative touches on the long tables. The high ceilings of the former church had been cut back to a more appropriate dimension. My dining companion had just remarked that the place might get noisy if full when a large family with several youngsters was seated under the old choir loft, raising the sound level appreciably.
Our review meal slowed slightly as the room began to fill up. We received less attention from our server through no fault of her own, but because her assigned tables included some on the other side of the room. A bus girl kindly offered to package our leftovers, since our server didn't notice until later as we waited for the check. The maitre d' was seating another table while we exited the church. As we passed the courtyard on the way out, we imagined it filled with satisfied locavores. We wished we had discovered Panico's Bistro sooner.
(C.C. Hoyt is the pseudonym of a southern New Jersey food writer. Write to Hoyt c/o Food Editor James Clark at firstname.lastname@example.org. Restaurant-ratings guide: 4 stars, extraordinary; 3 stars, excellent; 2 stars, good; 1 star, fair; 0 stars, poor.)
West Cape May
Hours: Dinners from 5 p.m., Thursday to Sunday
Liquor license: BYO
Credit cards: Most major
Disabled access: Yes
Price range: Appetizers $7 to $11, entrees $17 to $22
Our bill for two: $69 plus tip