Just around the corner by Doreen G. Fernandez

(Source: -- Phil Inquirer, 8 Mar 2000)

FOUR young people are at the helm of this little restaurant called Panino (34 Sgt. Esguerra St., formerly Bohol Ave., QC; tel. 416-2273; fax 951-3352). Dan Victor Aquino, Atenista, who meets and greets people, and his wife, Dada Paz Aquino, are the coowners and partners. Her sister Regina Paz Matelli is the pastry chef, whose husband, Dino Matelli, is the chef. A good team.

The sunny restaurant is off Sgt. Esguerra, up a driveway and other spaces that will eventually shelter other restaurants and a beauty salon--all this a short distance from the more bustling Tomes Morato. It was pointed out to us by chef Fernando Aracama, whose UVA is almost around the corner. As it happens, he and Dino Matelli come from the same Boston cooking school.

The menu is brief and interesting. "Firsts" come first: a soup of the day, like a warming potato-parsley soup with large foccacia croutons; Babaghanouj, the roasted eggplant and garlic dip served with pita bread: pan-fried squid with onions, lemon and olive oil; grilled vegetables with fresh mozzarella cheese and roasted garlic; and lamb skewers with cucumber-yogurt sauce. One could make a meal out of one or two of them.

Salads include a Med Salad--greens tossed with feta cheese, potatoes and oregano-mint vinaigrette; caesar salad with foccacia croutons; and mixed greens with a creamy lemon dressing.

One begins to notice that foccacia, also served warm in baskets before the meal (with an olive oil-balsamic vinegar dip), is a house specialty. Actually breads are a focus, and Regina Paz Matelli is to be thanked for them. Aside from the breads needed from day to day, on Wednesdays she makes special hot breads, and again, one feels like making a meal of them, so good are they. The last time we were there, she had poppy seed rolls, fennel rolls, onion rolls, garlic knots and cheese Baps. Of course we couldn't resist, and took hot samples home to bolster home cooking. A selection of Panini comes next on the menu--open-face hot sandwiches Italian style. The Capresse has fresh mozzarella, tomatoes and pesto; the Grilled Chicken Panini, chicken slices with a sweet pepper sauce; and the Italian Deli Panini, Italian meats, provolone cheese and olives.

Although those again are meals onto themselves, one must forge ahead toward the main plates. Pastas, of course, are featured: penne with spicy fennel sausage, cream and rosemary; linguine, with sautéed shrimp, herbs and mushrooms, and of course spaghetti, with Dino Matelli's personal edition of puttanesca sauce--tomatoes, olives and anchovies. (Can you imagine how many sauces puttanesca there are in this town, in restaurants, home-bottled for sale by housewives, and served in homes?)

We had a flavorful Lamb and Olive Burger the first time we visited, with ricotta cheese and minted tomato-sweet pepper relish. It was no longer on the menu on our second trip; but we chose from the blackboard a North African Tuna Brochette with couscous, and a panini with vegetables, pesto and a salad. We were happy both times, and spread the word. Don't consider your happiness complete, however, till you have tried Regina Matelli's desserts.

When the restaurant was barely 3 months old, the day's list included: Simple Butter Cake (now a rara avis), with orange and rum flavor; a Baby Caramel Cheesecake; and the Chocolate Orgasm, an intense, mind-blowing chocolate cake. As the restaurant seasons and ages, the list will change, so watch it.

The daily specials are listed on a blackboard by the door, facing both rooms of this small, casual, sunlit restaurant. The special breads change weekly; the one-page menu is transformed monthly. That, and the quality of each day's offerings, make Panino a good stop on the Quezon City food landscape.