There's a kind of magic about Pane e Vino, and I think it's called authenticity. The food at this little restaurant tastes exactly like the best food I had in Italy as a child. Even the personalities of the waiters and waitresses are unquestionably Italian--either charming or maddening to the hilt.
If this restaurant had opened in Los Angeles and experienced the kind of success that it has had in Montecito, it would have been turned into a million-dollar-plus culinary theme park by now. As it is, the restaurant makes do with the small, tasteful space of a previous restaurant in Montecito Village.
On a Saturday night (and most other nights too), it's a full house. The tables spill out from the restaurant onto the canopied terrace, packed with diners elbow to elbow and knee to knee. The food, not the clientele, qualifies this as a trattoria , which in Italy is a small, neighborhood restaurant catering mostly to families and businessmen. This trattoria attracts an upscale crowd.
Like most Italians, the chefs at Pane e Vino, led by Prego veteran Claudio Marchesan, are absolute snobs about the quality of their ingredients. Pane e Vino's version of papa al pomodoro , tomato and bread soup, for instance, has all the flavor of the best tomatoes of summer. It's a thick, homey dish--the chunks of bread have the consistency of cheese. (Note: the restaurant rotates its soups daily.)
Bresaola con rucola-- thin, thin rounds of dry-cured beef with arugula and onions--is drizzled with a delicious vinaigrette. And the house salad contains impeccable greens topped with a surprisingly mild dressing (though I have trouble paying $5.25 for a dinner salad).
The pastas, however, are worth the $8 to $9 prices. Zitti alla puttanesca is laced with herbs and has the added piquancy of olives and capers. Bucatini consists of thick strands of spaghetti with big slivers of sweet onions and a fine, very spicy sauce. Rotelli , corkscrew noodles, come with a lamb ragu sauce, the meat ground so fine that it lends only its flavor to the creamy sauce. My favorite pasta is the capellini al pomodoro naturale-- a perfect balance of tomatoes, garlic slivers and basil.
Fresh Mediterranean sea bass is grilled to a crisp perfection and boned at the table. A small half charbroiled chicken, marinated in lime juice and covered with fresh tarragon, is excellent. It comes with little boiled potatoes and thin green beans. Risottos change daily--I tried one in which the chewy, creamy rice came with morsels of lobster flavored with garlic and saffron.
For dessert, there is a fine rendition of tirami su , but it's the affogato al caffe that I found stunning. Like a root beer float made with coffee, it consists of a small glass of the most delicious white chocolate ice cream drowned in espresso and smothered in whipped cream. It's the kind of dessert--actually, this restaurant is the kind of place--that makes me feel as if I've just celebrated my birthday.
WHERE AND WHEN
Pane e Vino, 1482 E. Valley Road, Montecito. 969-2274. Lunch and dinner Monday to Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; dinner only Sunday 5 to 9 p.m. Wine and beer. Parking lot. No credit cards. Dinner for two, food only, $30-$60.