Open Wed.–Thurs., 5:30–8:30 p.m.; Fri.–Sat., 5:30–9 p.m.
110 South Churton Street, Hillsborough
There’s a Brigadoon-like quality to Panciuto, the cozy restaurant entering its fourteenth year of life in downtown Hillsborough. Simply getting there—for anyone who doesn’t happen to live in central Orange County—is a bit of a journey, and if your route takes you down one of many backroads in the hazy, refracted glow of an early summer evening, then the elsewhere vibes grow more immersive by the mile. Panciuto is only open four nights a week, and the menu—according to legitimately poetic website copy—“changes a little bit every day, noticeably week to week, and completely month to month.”
Of all the pleasures on offer from our esteemed local eateries, Panciuto’s are the most ephemeral.
Perhaps that’s why the restaurant seems to flicker on the edges of the local consciousness, in the shadow of the grander egos and bigger crowds of the “in-town” places. Mention Panciuto to gastronomically inclined friends, and you’ll hear things like, “I’ve been meaning to try it,” and “I never make it out there,” and “Oh yeah! That place!” Even Panciuto chef-owner Aaron Vandemark seems like a bit of a wallflower, despite six James Beard Foundation nominations and gushes of social media love from culinary bigshots. He’s an iconoclast by his own admission.
“You don’t do what we do,” Vandemark says. “It doesn’t make sense.”
Panciuto—in a dining culture where the word “local” has been buzzed into near meaninglessness—is local as all hell. It walks that particular path of righteousness with a single-minded resolve, serving nothing that isn’t grounded in the pursuit of regional terroir. Its dishes and preparations sprout like crops, are nurtured and loved and coaxed into form, only to disappear with the next turn in the season, usually never to be seen or tasted again.
The triumphs and tribulations of local agriculture and fisheries inform every aspect of Panciuto’s menu: According to Vandemark, the restaurant both suffers and celebrates along with the people who supply the vast majority of its food.
“The connection to people, time, and place is everything,” Vandemark says. “We will always be a reflection of the reality of farming in this community.”
And so, a caveat. This is not a review, not really. It’s a snapshot of a restaurant—and in the spirit of that restaurant’s mission, a region—at one particular moment in time. It just so happens to be quite a nice moment, with a wet and miserable winter fading into memory, and the feisty flavors of spring giving way to summer’s swooning, heavy-laden abundance.
Panciuto offers a frieze of this precise point in the harvest in the form of a vegetable board, which sounds like something you might find at a Lutheran picnic but is, in fact, one of the sexiest and most audacious dishes around. Nine local vegetables, fiercely in season, arrayed on a serving board in gorgeous, psychedelic hues. The least I can do is to describe it in the same detail as it was presented.
Grilled strawberries, their exterior caramelized and interior molten; grilled onions, smoky and sweet; sugar snaps with a percussive crunch, sprinkled with a lemony gremolata; beets in onion jam, their juices like a smear of lipstick; asparagus, savory and pleasingly bitter. Broccoli, fried to tempura delicacy; bok choy in spicy vinegar, vivacious and exotic; pickled cauliflower, with an appetite-whetting tang; best of all, fennel in fig jam and mustard vinaigrette, anise sweetness amplified to candied sublimity.
Vandemark pointed out the provenance of every item in this litany, and the growers would be familiar to anyone who’s lurked around local farmers markets. The dish is a portrait of what the average home cook would be picking up this time of year, prepared with intent and consummate skill.
Radicchio has a niche hewn into my personal Divine Pantheon of Vegetables, and it was happily the centerpiece of Panciuto’s salad the night of my visit. Grilled to a lightly smoky char, it came dressed in anchovy oil and a pickly dill aioli and tossed with a cleanly contrasting lettuce. Balancing wholesome bitterness with oily richness, it’s a hearty, crunchy salad I wanted to eat with my hands.
The cold cucumber soup was fussier but came generously apportioned with golf-ball-size lumps of sweet crab meat. The seafoam green broth was a bit salty but made for a breezy, herbaceous palate cleanser.
Pasta is the crux of Panciuto’s menu, and it’s where the restaurant’s ambition is most evidently put to the test. There were four on the night of our visit: passionate, technical dishes relying solely on the bounty of our very small (in global terms) swath of field and coast.
The duck meatballs with chicken and duck liver tortellini was our only dish of the evening featuring the meat of a land-dwelling animal, and it was a stutter-step. I like the strange, metallic complexity of offal, and the pasta filling was admirably livery. But the tortellini itself was undercooked, crunchy, and unappetizing. The meatballs were flavorful but seemed to lack fat, the texture crumbly. These disappointing bites did, however, come resting in a superb duck broth that I drank out of the bowl.
The canestri—sort of a giant, pot-bellied macaroni—was a better example of Panciuto’s produce-focused approach. A blanketing sauce of cream, asparagus, basil, and scallion was augmented by a poached egg, its tangerine yolk spreading in little tributaries over the noodles, an added layer of decadence to the vivid, deep-green flavors of spring.
Next came gnocchi. I have a bad track record with gnocchi. Usually, I find it to be just fine, and I rarely understand its penchant for eliciting gasping adulation. But Panciuto’s version is far better than just fine. Gnocchi can be chewy and leaden: These are diaphanous, the interior like a puff of cotton. They come anointed by a squash butter that elevates the dish into pleasure-coma territory.
While the gnocchi’s charms come easy, the black spaghetti is on a different plane, and ultimately the one entrée where Vandemark’s skills are on the most transcendent display. It’s an arresting-looking dish, the noodles dyed a stygian greenish-black by squid ink. In contrast, “noodles” of cucumber run through the tangle, dotted here and there by clam shells. It’s cloaked in a fiery tomato sauce, little pops of red against the dark background. And there’s more of that crab meat, rendered briny and pugnacious by heat and spice. It’s an aggressive dish, perhaps a rejoinder to those who might doubt Panciuto’s bona fides. It was absolutely stupendous.
If there is any through-line to these four divergent preparations, it’s intensity. They are bravely flavored and unapologetically rich, with nothing tamed or withheld. And their flavors belie the humbler aspects of Panciuto’s aura. This unadorned dining room, open maybe twenty hours a week, will nonetheless squeeze every possible drop out of the local gleaning. This little restaurant, tucked away on a quaint main street in an absurdly charming riverside town, will surprise with powerful, emotional cooking.
At least that’s what happened the last time I went, accompanied by three friends on a perfect June evening. By the time you read this, the menu will have changed, these ingredients and flavors replaced by something fresher, livelier, more implacably in season. I can only recommend that you take the time to capture your own snapshot, and know that it will be fascinatingly different than mine.
Comment on this review at email@example.com.
Restaurant reviews are supported by the INDY Press Club. Visit KeepItINDY.com to learn more about how you can keep the Triangle’s best culture journalism sustainable.