By David Nelson / Photos by Kate and Michael Auda
Chef Riccardo Brentegani twirls sauced spaghetti into a neat, reddish bird's nest and mounds it neatly in a bowl. Most likely, Mamma taught him this eye-dazzling trick when he was a boy in Verona, a historic city in Northeastern Italy. It's also likely he would be surprised by the notice his maneuver attracts when he performs it in a kitchen open to the dining room at Little Italy's new Pan Bon.
Some open kitchens display the relentless work of cooking as an athletic, sometimes chaotic dance of cooks wielding red-hot pans, razor-sharp knives, loud voices and strong wills. But Pan Bon presents the art of cuisine as theater that entertains and educates audiences watching from a comfortable distance. Artfully authentic, this Italian eatery does everything (absolutely everything) the Old World way.
Housed in the new Ariel tower on Kettner Boulevard, Pan Bon came about in a time-honored way - although brothers and co-proprietors Luciano and Giancarlo Anselmi flew in from Italy, rather than sailing around Cape Horn like immigrants did before the Panama Canal shortened the trip.
Luciano, who supervises the restaurant's overall operations while Giancarlo specializes in baking, tells the story, one that would have been familiar to Americans generations ago.
"Basically, a friend of my brother got a Green Card and came to San Diego, where she met the owner of a seafood restaurant in La Jolla," he says. "She came home to Verona and came by our bakery [also called Pan Bon], and told us we could be a big success in San Diego, because there is nothing like it here."
The brothers crossed the ocean to get here but never took a leap of faith. They checked things out first.
"We came to visit in 2011 and loved San Diego," says Luciano. "The economy in Italy determined us to move to the United States and start fresh. We first planned a bakery and pastry shop, but we found this wonderful new building and decided to open a restaurant also."
To understand the concept, it helps to walk through Pan Bon, past display cases full of delicate pastries, colorful cakes, and traditional hot and cold Italian food to eat in the cafe or take out. Beyond this area, a sit-down restaurant offers table service and well-written breakfast, lunch and dinner menus.
In a corner, a stairway climbs to a mezzanine that, Luciano hopes, will soon house a high-end dining room and bar.
"There is not so big a difference between American and Italian customers," Luciano says when asked if San Diego has surprised him.
"They all love what we do. We were told we would have to change some dishes for Americans, but this has not been true. Chef Riccardo cooks everything the same as in Verona."
Only one guest so far has requested meatballs (and didn't get them), but Luciano admits some astonishment at a phone call he answered soon after opening.
"The man wanted to know if we serve Alfredo sauce. I said 'no,'" he says, looking amazed. "He asked, 'Why not?' I said, 'Because it's not Italian.'" Luciano explains that he enjoys watching how San Diegans react to dishes from Verona. "In Italy, every city has its own cooking," he says. "There is not only one way to do spaghetti al pomodoro, because every place has its own way of making it. Pan Bon has its own way, too - we do what we do."
1450 Kettner Blvd., Little Italy