After more than three decades as the maestro at other people’s restaurants, Angelo Capponi, the proud owner of Pane e Bene, 1620 Post Road in Westport, struts around his new Italian restaurant and bar like a proud papa.
Pane e Bene means “bread and goodness.” To Angelo, it signifies, “Freshly prepared, simple food, nice décor and an ‘experience’.” He explains, “We want to give people what they don’t find elsewhere; a place where you feel special. The opposite of places where you feel like they’re doing you a favor.”
Just two months into opening, with talented chef and partner Henry Lopez in the kitchen (“a partner who radiates goodness inside and out,” Angelo says), the word on Pane e Bene is out. Despite the strip mall location and discreet “pb” logo on the awnings, followers have found the place, and are packing the lot with Bentleys & Rolls Royces, Ford pickups and Dodge Caravans. On a Saturday night in July, plenty of locals, my crew included, are here to pay homage to the affable gent who knew us by name and treated us like family for 13 years at Tarantino, a veritable institution at the Westport train station.
Though never the owner at Tarantino, Angelo was its face. He was the guy who shouted “Signora!” above the din on a standing-room-only Saturday night, kissed my hand, signaled the bartender to bring a cocktail, ushered me onto a bar stool with a joke, and made me forget there was a 40-minute wait. Behind the scenes, he was busy planning the wine lists and specials, setting up private parties and generally whipping the joint into shape.
A man after my own heart, Angelo made sure the town of Westport would let him install a decent bar before he’d sign the lease at Pane e Bene, the former home of Pho Gardens and Zole. “Look around the Post Road,” Angelo points out. “Where can people meet for a nice drink?”
He contracted architect Billy Achilles and Westport builders Scotty Rochlin and Jimmy Lamb to transform the awkward L-shape space into an adult dining spot more suited for socializing. They opened up the narrow dining room by moving the kitchen to the back of the space and carved out an ample, fully stocked bar, surrounded by mosaic tile, now the heart of the action. It’s loud, it’s boisterous, it’s packed with faces you recognize — just how Angelo envisioned it.
With spruced up décor by artist Donna Lake, a small outdoor deck with cheery flower boxes and an efficient young wait staff, Pane e Bene is a dream realized — and Angelo couldn’t be prouder. He reports in late July, “This Saturday night, our second month anniversary, we did 120 covers.” He clasps his hands together in a prayer of silent thanks and looks skyward. The word on the street is that the food is first-rate.
“Food is very important,” Angelo says, “but it’s not enough. You have to smile when people walk in, get the customer in the mood to forget what happened outside. We are in the entertainment business and we can’t be affected by the economy. People want to forget their troubles and enjoy.”
Angelo isn’t your 2011, “let’s open a restaurant” entrepreneur. In true European style, he spent his youth in the hospitality industry, training and paying his dues for the day when he would be able to choreograph all facets of his own production.
At age eight, he worked at his aunt’s side in a restaurant on the Arno River. “Restaurants are in my veins,” he jokes, recalling years in hospitality school and breaking his neck doing triple shifts aboard an exclusive European cruise line. His travels took him to London, where he added English to his repertoire, which served him well as a bow-tied bus boy at La Strada in Greenwich, the Grande dame of celebrity hangouts in the ‘80s, where waiters flambéed, sautéed, and de-boned tableside for the likes of Leona Hemsley, Jack Parr, Arthur Ashe and the glitterati of the era. Angelo rose through the ranks until he was the ringleader — but never the owner.
A lifelong restaurant vet, he’s clearly in his element as the front man at Pane e Bene — greeting guests, “Buon Giorno! Make yourself at home!”, offering menu suggestions, “The Zucchini alla Pane e Bene; so simple, but when you bite into it, it’s dangerous!” and directing waiters with a third eye.
After a hearty Bona Sera and well-priced bottle of Chianti from the excellent wine selection, we can hardly wait to tuck into the menu. Though you can’t go wrong with tried-and-true apps, like Buffalo Mozzarella, Tomato and Basil and Calamari Fra Diavolo, take my advice and ask your server to be your guide. You won’t be sorry.
On my first visit with a party of four, instead of opting for the tempting salad of beets, warms sheep’s cheese and honey, I put myself in Angelo’s hands. He, in turn, puts his trust in Chef Henry, the soft-spoken Guatemalan-chef and a master of restraint.
The apps are all slam-dunks. Lopez fills his light-as-air “fritte” squash blossoms with a fluffy ricotta and herb filling accompanied by a side of fresh marinara. He enhances the subtle flavors of creamy Burrata mozzarella by pairing it with prosciutto from Parma. He elevates a plate of ripe figs and Gorgonzola with a drizzle of aged balsamic vinegar.
When Angelo suggests we try the stuffed pepper, we demur. We’ve had too many sodden, overstuffed peppers to even think of ordering them in a restaurant. The dish materializes on our table anyway. Lopez’s version is smaller, tastier, punchier than what we expect. In a different league, it’s stuffed with a savory mixture of sweet Italian sausage and toasted, spicy breadcrumbs that sends us into raptures. Angelo laughs knowingly when we flag him down to order seconds.
At lunch a few weeks later with a foodie friend in tow, Angelo takes us under his wing. A handsome young waiter delivers a parade of picks from the summer menu, which relies heavily on fresh lemon and herbs for bright flavors.
First course? The heavenly Zucchini alla Pane e Bene, a light riff on a lasagne, featuring paper-thin slices of zucchini, topped with a light marinara and a disc of fresh mozzarella (wow!), followed by Tortelloni alla Pane e Bene. Like ravioli, the soft pasta pillows are filled with ricotta and dressed with a light lemon sauce and fresh mint. The mussels arrive in a zesty broth with Limoncelo liqueur, which we sop up with chewy Italian bread from Terranova Bakery in Brooklyn. But the dish that draws the most oohs and ahhs is the chef’s twist on Branzino — as pretty as it is delicious. Boned, cooked in garlic, Pinot Grigio and fresh thyme, it’s topped with crispy, thin-sliced potatoes and served with a side of escarole. Perfection!
With a nicely chilled Gavi, it caps off a summer lunch to remember. A sidenote: “pb” has been ‘discovered’ for lunch, with business lunchers and old friends catching up over panini, salads, pastas at $8-$13.
Overall, the food showcases Chef Lopez’s light hand and respect for fresh, best-quality ingredients. The entrees, vegetables and sides are flavorful across the board, without being drowned in garlic, oil, sauces or salt.
At dinner, a must-try is the Vitello a la Pane e Bene. This impossibly thin sautéed scaloppini of veal is a cross between Saltimbocca and Piccata dressed with fresh sage, butter and Acai liqueur. The real surprise is the addition of fresh grapefruit supremes, which impart a burst of sweet-tart citrus to the dish. The side is just as good. In fact, I’d order the veal for the fabulously crisp-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside potato croquette.
Though I didn’t order it myself, the Dover Sole was zipping around the room on a recent visit, an obviously popular choice. I’m told it only graces the lineup when Chef Henry can source the best, and then it sells out as soon as it hits the menu. A tip: If you see something you like on the specials menu, order it. Don’t wait. There’s a good chance it will be gone the next time you visit.
At “pb” the pastas are all homemade. If you’re in the mood for a classic with a twist, opt for the Fettuccine Bolognese with earthy porcini. It’s as good as any you’re likely to find — anywhere. The Integrale alla Leslie (whole wheat fettuccine, arugula, fresh tomato and mushrooms) is an appealing choice for vegetarians. Only the finger-licking-good linguine with white clam sauce, brimming with tiny clams, might have benefitted from a douse of extra broth. “I’m actually glad there wasn’t more,” joked my dining companion. “After devouring the whole bowl of pasta, I would have polished off the dregs with more bread!”
When it’s time for dessert, you won’t have room. Sit back, order an espresso, a coffee or a glass of Port, and make some. Lopez’s Tiramisu is lighter than most, but totally decadent. His secret? “I do it my own way,” says Henry, who whisks the eggs into a bath of warm sugar and water, cooking them slightly, instead of adding them raw. Not only does this render it fluffier, it’s safe for pregnant women and kids. Similarly, his homemade Cannoli are tiny, light and addictive, with an airier cream filling that make them feel modern. The Crème-Caramel is rich and simple, and large enough to split. Then there’s the homemade Chocolate Mousse with Pepperoncini. Yup, those are real peppers! We loved the little kick.
In two visits, we barely scratch the surface of the regular menu. Blame it on the appealing seasonal specials. I’m already looking forward to the fall, when chestnuts, truffles and pumpkin will make their way into the rotation.
Clearly, as old fans of Angelo’s, we were rooting for his first venture to be a winner. So to keep us honest, we brought some tough critics to offer their unbiased opinions. They were extremely impressed with the level of the food (“Molto Bene!”), and told us they thought the prices were more than fair. At dinner, appetizers are $10-$13, salads ($10), pastas ($21-$23) and “secondi” ($22-24). “We’ll be back.” To drive home the point, they’ve booked seats to a September dinner with Brunello winemaker Michael Petrizzo.
Pane e Bene
1620 Post Road in Westport
(Next to Red-Cut Carpets; across from Westport Inn)
Dining & Bar Hours
Tuesday-Thursday 12 p.m. to close (bar closes at 1 a.m)
Friday: noon to 11 p.m. (bar closes at 1 a.m.)
Saturday: 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Bar closes at 1 a.m.
Sunday: 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Bar closes at 11 p.m.
(Note: Don’t pay too much attention to the hours. Angelo says, “As long as we’re here, you can always get food. We serve breakfast, lunch and dinner. By that I mean, if you come in at 11 and are hungry, we’ll make you “breakfast” — Spaghetti Carbonara.”