Hours: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday through Sunday. Prices: Most dinner entrees $7 to $9. Cards: MasterCard, Visa.
Special $6.95 early-bird dinners in an Italian restaurant that bakes its own bread? It sounds irresistible, and, it turns out, some of the dinners are.
La Panetteria has the feeling of a Mediterranean courtyard, with tile floors, skylights, stucco walls, wood tables and high-backed chairs. It is a most pleasant environment, albeit clattery from all those hard surfaces.
The specials, served Monday through Friday from 4 to 6:30 p.m., consist of minestrone or salad, a choice from among seven entrees, coffee or tea, and spumoni.
By and large, this is a quality operation. The salad is simple and good, with crisp romaine, red cabbage and a good dressing of oil and wine vinegar. The minestrone is crammed with vegetables and has a rich, meaty broth -- without the usual dominance of tomatoes. Eat it with thehomemade bread (plain and with fresh garlic), which is yeasty, buttery and rough-textured.
Among the entree choices, the shining light is the hearty sausage platter. This dish alone would be worth the trip. Two plump, homemade Italian sausages -- lean yet juicy, and aromatic with fennel -- are surrounded by chunks of crunchy onion and green pepper, fresh mushrooms, spaghetti and an excellent, robust tomato sauce.
In fact, all the tomato sauces here -- and they vary subtly from dish to dish -- are extraordinarily good.
Another good choice is the tortellini, the pasta circles, firm yet tender to the bite, the slightly sweet, fruity tomato sauce having just the right hint of nutmeg. Still another is chicken piccata, thin slices of very tender, succulent breast meat in a simple sauce of lemon, butter, capers and what tastes like a little white wine.
Eggplant parmigiana is a decent rendition, but it could be better. It has the very good tomato sauce and a good mozzarella topping, but the eggplant, perhaps sliced too thin, is mushy. Lasagna is pleasant but unremarkable, with a good pasta and sauce and rough-ground meat but with a certain uniform softness that comes from being in the oven too long.
Of all the early-bird specials we tried, the only real bust was the manicotti. The pasta rolls were reasonably firm and filled with a tasty ricotta-spinach mixture, but they were completely swamped in a remarkably dull cream sauce -- an unpleasant fate for such nice pasta.
If you want to supplement your specials with extra appetizers, here are a few good options. The white pizza is excellent, with a flaky, yeasty crust, lots of garlic, and a good fontina cheese. Chicken livers are fresh and tender, lightly battered and fried, if a touch dry. Mussels marinara, too, are lovely. But the best appetizer is insalata di mara, a wonderful salad of tender, marinated squid and lagousta with crisp vegetables, olives and capers. It's $4.75, and big enough for two.