This is where you want to be right now: sitting at a table on the patio of Pane e Vino, alternating bites of bruschetta alla Siciliana and smoked prosciutto with sips of classic chianti. Pane e Vino is a shining star in the Charleston world of alfresco dining.
The Italian restaurant is just a short walk from the Upper King Design district and is easily identified by the Italian flag hanging out front. Inside, there's a small, dimly lit dining room with a handful of worn tables, and a bar that seats four, but outside is where the best tables are. Half of the large patio is sheltered by trees; the other half is covered by a rustic wooden roof. Small lights are strung from wooden beams and candles flicker at each table. Entirely surrounded by a vine-covered fence, the patio is private and sheltered from the bustle of the street. The atmosphere is such that a starry-eyed couple would feel entirely comfortable holding hands, gazing into each other's eyes, perhaps even sharing a discreet kiss.
The name Pane e Vino fits: a basket of freshly baked bread and a ramekin of olive oil come to the table once you've chosen a glass or bottle of wine. The wine list, comprised primarily of Italian wines, is sorted by style for whites, and by region for reds. There are enough options without becoming overwhelming.
The menu at Pane e Vino hasn't changed much in the past few years, although the kitchen always offers a few specials — a seasonal pasta or appetizer and the catch of the day.
On a recent visit I sampled a large globe of milky burrata surrounded by dressed greens and three small stacks of chopped tomato ($10). Carasau con Prosciutto D'Anatra is constructed of thin slices of smoked duck breast arranged between large pieces of Sardinian flat bread, accompanied by a small arugula salad, tomatoes, and basil ($12). The antipasto misto ($14) contains a selection of marinated vegetables, cured anchovies topped with fresh parsley pesto, and a spread of cold meats. We were happy to see sundried tomatoes, roasted red peppers, soppressata, and an artichoke heart bursting with flavor. The appetizers are generous and can easily be shared.
Pane focuses on providing comfort food from all around Italy rather than fussy fine dining. The dishes are simple and hearty. A bowl of Spaghetti alla Bolognese reminded me of Sunday suppers at my grandmother's house — spaghetti topped with plenty of meat and tomato sauce and dusted with parmesan. The $15 price tag may seem high, but the substantial portion size guarantees enough leftovers to make a second meal.
Pasta options are abundant and include homemade gnocchi tossed in creamy gorgonzola cream sauce and fresh arugula ($16) and spinach and ricotta-stuffed ravioli served with a speck and asparagus cream sauce ($17). Then there's the super-sized cut of lasagna layered with ground beef, fontina, mushrooms, tomato sauce, and romano cheese ($14.50). All are crowd-pleasers. I particularly enjoyed the pappardelle con l'anatra ($18). It's a plate of housemade pappardelle in an earthy wild mushroom cream sauce with a slow-roasted duck leg on the side. The sauce is creamy, but not too rich and the duck meat falls off the bone with the slightest nudge from your fork.
The small portion of the cioppino ($25) is meant to serve one person, but could easily serve two. The large portion ($40) could probably serve three or four people. The sauce is tomato-based, lightened with white wine, and accented with fresh herbs and garlic. The protein consists of the seafood catch of the day; this time it was salmon surrounded by scallops, shrimp, mussels, and bare lobster tail with small bits of meat floating around. The sea-faring stew is stopped with two pieces of grilled bread and a garnish of chopped parsley. The flavors all came together to create quite the satisfying dish.
Another secondi choice, a manly sized lamb shank, sits in the middle of a plate atop a more thick than creamy polenta and a puddle of thick reddish-brown demi-glace ($29). Unlike the duck leg, it took extra effort to get the meat off the bone and it was a bit dry. The sauce definitely held its own, although the generous portion was less appreciated here. Not a bad dish, but not mind-blowing, especially at that price point. The same goes for the filet of beef, which was decent, but at $31, I'd take my money elsewhere.
This brings us back to the premise of what Pane e Vino really is: Italian comfort food. They don't need to serve crudo or $200 bottles of Super Tuscan because the pasta and ambience — oh, that ambience — will make you feel downright good inside. And so will the tiramisu.