Panini’s - Casts a Special Spell
Sierra Lodestar 04/24/10

Panini’s Casts a Special Spell

By Antoinette May Herndon

It’s a long, long trail a winding to Copperopolis Town Square, but once you’ve rounded that last bend in the road the reward is sheer magic. I thought of Brigadoon and hoped the tiny enclave wouldn’t disappear before my eyes.

It’s hard to think of a housing development as “darling” but think again. Though brand new, the town square somehow capture the essence of a gold country village. Remember that song, “Everything Old is New Again”? Well, rethink it—in reverse.

The focal point of the planned community is an old fashioned square with off street parking, wide sidewalks, weathered store fronts, extensive plantings and rest areas. Its effect is that of a true country settlement.

The town’s adjunct is Copperopolis, a true gold rush era village known instead for its copper mines.

Founded in 1860, Copperopolis immediately flourished. The North needed copper bullets—fast. But later, in a peace time economy, the expense of mining and shipping copper proved too high. The mines closed— not to boom again until World War I.

Another lull followed, then another war. When the mines closed again in 1946, they’d produced 72,598,883 pounds of copper worth more than $12 million. But once again Copperopolis fell on hard times, its thriving industry merely a memory.

Now for the good news. There’s a new boom, Castle & Cooke’s Saddle Creek, a planned community centered around a golf course.

Now don’t ask me about the golf course. I’m not into that stuff. I didn’t even know about Saddle Creek or it’s charming center, Copperopolis Town Square. Charles and I and our Sonoran pals, Kathie and Charles Luke decided to rendezvous there because people were raving about this “fabulous

Italian restaurant.”

Panini’s! Panini’s! Panini’s! I “simply had” to write about it.

We’d expected a reasonably good restaurant in another old town. So you can imagine our surprise at the square’s imaginative new-old architecture.

It gets better. Panini’s large windows look out on colourful streets and lush hillsides. The restaurant’s ambience is sophisticated and romantic and, though in no way pretentious, there’s a festive, casually elegant feel that spells “date night.”

Owner-proprietor Michael Pennini (imagne Pennini— Panini’s? Dare we say karma?) welcomed us right away. And then there was the bar. Fair or not, a martini can prejudice me one way or another in evaluating restaurants. Is it chilled? Are the olives fresh? Most important: are the proportions right? (Dry, very dry.)

Suffice it to say Panini’s passes the test. At $7, theirs is as good as it gets. Though I call myself a one martini lady, I was hard pressed to stop there. It was only because Charles Luke had brought a prize bottle of Stevenot’s 2006 barberra, that I forced myself to fold.

He and I began with the house salad, large, crisp and varied, with an excellent buttermilk cream dressing. I liked the dressing so much, I’d have enjoyed having more on the side. Kathie went with the house soup, minestrone. Could have used a little more seasoning, she felt.

Charles Herndon broke ranks, ordering a wedge salad. ($9) The crisp iceberg lettuce was topped with pancetta and Panini’s signature gorgonzola dressing. The presentation, completed by thinly sliced apple, looked gorgeous. It was too. I know because I stole a bite.

During the course of the dinner Michael Pennini visited our table. Having owned two restaurants in Moraga, he’d been contemplating retirement when

captured by magic of Copperopolis Town Square. Next thing Pennini knew he was part of it.

Though Pennini and chef, Mike Baisch, constantly vary the menu, devising specials that are truly special, they’re particularly proud of their fish. “We’re constantly trying new fish and variations of favourites,” he says. “Featured items change but one thing you can count on is freshness— there’s nothing frozen around here.”

With that in mind, Kathie chose salmon with chipotle sauce. It sounded dicey to me. Salmon is so subtle and could easily be overwhelmed, but chef Baisch did the perfect Goldilocks slight of hand—not too spicy, not too bland. Kathie found it just right.

Charles Luke and I selected another special, the braised ribs. ($21) This is a floater item, not always on the menu. When opportunity knocks, recognize it as an offer not to be refused. The ribs are divine, an added enhancement a wafer that’s actually a slender parmesan cake. Never better.

Anyone who knows Charles Herndon would agree that he’s a tad on the taciturn side, not one to ooh! or ah! (I own all the adjectives in our house.) Be that as it may, even Charles was blown away by the eggplant parmesan. ($15) This wasn’t just great food, it was culinary architecture at its most spectacular.

Think oven-roasted eggplant topped with parmesan, and mozzarella cheese, with towers of marinara sauce crowned by spaghetti.

You might say the evening began and ended on a note of magic.

VITALS: Panini’s, 131 Town Square Rd. Phone 785-8811. Open Thursday, Sunday and Monday from 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday and Saturdays open until 9. Closed Tuesday and Wednesdays. Credit cards accepted. Reservations very desirable.

Pictures: Michael Pennini, center, discusses menu choices with Kathie and Charles Luke.