Big Review: Pane Vino, Kentish Town Road

This is, we strongly believe, still one of our best neighbourhood dining options. All it needs are a few tweaks

When did we last visit Pane Vino? We pondered this question swinging by for a pizza on the Easter bank holiday. I remember writing a little piece on it for the Guardian years ago, but don’t think we’d returned since. Back then I’d been ghosting a cookbook idea with the Michelin-starred Zafferano chef Andy Needham, who often said how he and his former boss Locatelli would visit Pane Vino – and rave about it.

And yet, as Kentish Town’s (foodie) star has risen, so Pane’s seems to have slipped. Readers rarely tweet or email us on its merits (or otherwise). In our 2011 Best Evening Meal Awards it garnered a few votes, but almost every other reputable local eatery received more.

How can it be? And why? Is it food, service or atmosphere? Time to investigate, especially in the light of our recent experience at Trullo, the heavingly successful Italian restaurant which we feel may be able to offer Pane Vino a few tips.

Stefania is the chef-patron. Born in Rome, her almost perfect Sardinian cooking is inspired by a long life in Terralba, on the west coast of the island. If you visit, ask her about it. She’s passionate and engaging. And, like us, you’ll learn something too.

So anyway, Stefania invited us over to try some of her favourite dishes, the ones that have kept Pane Vino in business for 15 years.

It was quiet, we thought as we sat by the window, the night drizzle beyond the panes. How to stimulate younger custom? Throw in a Campari bar and make more of their excellent aperitifs, the on-trend Negronis and Americanos? Dim the lights, refresh the furniture? Do a Trullo – functional, with paper tablecloths and wooden tables?

Or ‘Polpo’, all exposed brick walls, unfinished detailing and industrial lighting?

Purists will of course say no. This is rustic, classic, a tad 1990s, but charming enough, walls adorned with arty black and white shots taken with a pinhole camera. Paul Smith-style stripes liven up the seating a bit too.

After a Negroni, Stefania suggested a glass of dry sherry-like Vernaccia to accompany a colourful plate of Sardinian antipasti on pane carasau (a very thin, crispy flatbread): bottarga, sun dried toms stuffed with anchovies, olives, pecorino, thin-sliced fillet pork, wild boar, and Sardinian sausage fennel. Exceptional.

We then shared three first class tasting portions of pasta. Home-made ravioli with porcini, pecorino, sage and walnuts, linguine with bottarga (silver mullet roe, above) – unfishy, like a polite anchovy; and spaghetti vongole with just the right hit of garlic and chilli, a real surprise in its delicate flavour. Throughout Stefania selected Sardinian wines to match, and her Nuragus was creamy, tart and fruity.

When we were discussing his cookbook Andy Needham would talk endlessly about osso buco. It must be an obsession for Italian chefs. The name means ‘bone with a hole’, referring to the marrow hole at the centre of the veal shank. Stefania cooks hers for 6-8 hours until meltingly tender, its unctuousness livened by fruity olive oil and buttery green beans. Perfect with a full-bodied Anzenas.

Arguably more impressve still was the best sea bass we’ve had for months. Coated in semolina, it’s chargrilled hole then plunged briefly into a salamoia (a salty, herby bath), and accompanied by an earthy pile of spinach. Here Stefania recommended a Costamolino, a crisp fruity white.

Yes, it felt like – that old cliche – being on holiday, except we didn’t choose as well as this on a brief trip to Alghero a few years ago. And the flavours continued till our exhausted end: dolce piccante (spicy cake) and mirto liqueur, a ‘Seadas’, pastry filled with sweet pecorino cheese, covered in honey and served with ice cream. Then 100% pure arabica beaned expresso, with grappa.

But it hadn’t been busy enough during the evening, and it was disappointing to see people coming in just for pizza. This is, we strongly believe, still one of our best neighbourhood dining options. All it needs are a few tweaks.

But on the basis of the food alone, if Pane Vino had just opened in Soho, with a a bit of Twitter heat about its rough luxe decor, dark lighting, and hot young tattooed staff, you’d be booking months in advance. Or, more likely, queuing all night.

This is box title
Pane Vino, 323 Kentish Town Road. Antipasti, Primi, Secondi and Dolce for two with wine would be about £90. But pasta dishes are around £13 (as a main) Secondi from £15. Our advice? Go for a blowout.
Kentishtowner Rating: 8.5/10

  • Show Comments

  • Natalie

    I have eaten a couple of times at Pane Vino and both times thought it was excellent. However, both times I also thought the reception from staff was quite frosty. I’m not the kind of client who wants to be waited on hand and foot, but I like to be given recommendations when I ask for help to choose a dish. The first time I had a train to catch so needed a dish that could be prepared quickly, our waitress was most unhelpful. The second time, we came away feeling like we had not been up to standard and had been imposing. For my part, I think that’s why I don’t think of Pane Vino when I want to eat out locally, despite it’s delicious food.

    • Angie MF

      – Not amazing service nor atmosphere etc etc as said in 100 comments before….
      – ROBBERY> would you pay 60£ for average Italian with small drinks and coffee? not really.
      – 2 times overprice me and hubbie paid, not anymore> small glasses of wine came as large ones on bill, terrible! squeezing 10 then 12 at times 15% tip and wondering why there is only 1 or 2 couples everytime!!!!
      – AVOID IF POSSIBLE and spend 2/3 of that money on lovely pub food (e.g. lamb at Oxford Pub) or any other Sicilian in town.
      a couple of nice people do work there but seriously should be rethought or close down, actually it IS empty so many times and it IS because of those aspects!

  • Chris

    Ditto Above; the food is unquestionably great but the staff’s frostiness took the charm from the restaurant very quickly. I still recommend Pane Vino to friends with the advanced warning of surly service.

  • Kentishtowner

    All very interesting. The service issue seems to come up in several sites online. We’ve found if you’re inquisitive and ask questions the staff respond accordingly. But we agree there’s no excuse for surliness. Obviously Stefania and her team will be reading this so I’m sure they’ll take it on board.

  • Trace

    I’ve not been to Pane Vino but it looks good. Another local Sardinian restaurant is the wonderful Nuraghe in Tufnell Park – the food is delicious and the welcome couldn’t be warmer. It’s definitely deserving of a Kentish Towner review!

  • Estelle

    I love Pane Vino. It’s an authentic homey Sardinian restaurant with excellent food and I do wonder too why it’s not more busy. I think it’s just because the “décor” isn’t particularly appealing, it doesn’t look trendy. But that’s what’s nice about it. The service has always been very good when I went. They actually even recognize me the second time I came, which is definitely a skill and good customer service.

  • Simon

    I often used to eat at Pane Vino but I’m sad to say I couldn’t agree more with the comments about the totally charmless service. This place should be buzzing – delicious food, good wine list, great location – but there’s absolutely no smile, no welcome, no warmth when you walk through the door. So I no longer do.

  • Tom

    Got to say the value of a review where you’ve been invited by the owner is questionable. If they can’t pull out the stops then, they’re in trouble.

    We wasted one of our few evenings out at Pane Vino recently, as above poor service but the food wasn’t great either. Much prefer the more down to earth Delicious (Lucia is great) and Spaghetti House in Tufnell Park is a real charmer.

  • Leslie Wilson-Rutterford

    Did they know it was you, and that you were reviewing them? I’d be interested to know. I too was put off by snooty service, particularly the 2nd and last time, a few years ago now, when we went and didn’t order wine, as we were on the wagon at the time! Noses truly out of joint. Can’t remember the food, just remember the unfriendly service.

  • Louise

    Ditto above. Used to go quite regularly when we moved to the area as the food is good but got fed up with the service and haven’t been since. Also some strange things overpriced (£5 for a handful of rocket/parmesan but this may have changed as I haven’t been recently).

  • Kentishtowner

    Hi Leslie, yes she knew we were coming. We always make it clear if we are invited.

    Tom, it’s a fair point to question the value of the review, of course, but in that case you should question every film, music, theatre, travel and many food reviews you read (as you should anyway). They’re almost all ‘comps’. If we had a budget to eat out anonymously, every week, and recharge a big publisher, we would. But to deliver a daily title on a shoestring budget we have to rely partly (not certainly not wholly) on hospitality from interested parties (as does almost every other publication, both print and online). Which is why we are ‘transparent’ about it.

    We take time over our reviews (as I think is obvious here) and I like to think we are thoughtful in our responses and offer a considered view that’s of real value. We also care about the survival of good local businesses such as Pane Vino and want to support them where possible, or at least offer advice. But our views are only a starting point. It’s just as important for readers to comment too; to open a debate.

    So, on that note – thanks for your feedback and keep it coming.

    • Tom

      Don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan of The Kentish Towner, but the difference between the service people are reporting here and what you, as an invited journalist, got seems a bit stark.

      Maybe me being cynical, but it’s not a big jump to say Stefania was making an extra effort to get some good publicity.

      It’s a difficult one but I will keep reading, LONG LIVE KT!

      • Kentishtowner

        Or we could be refreshingly un-cynical and argue that Stefania is aware of the restaurant’s problems, and by inviting us down she is trying to rectify them?

        Glad you’re a fan Tom. All opinions are valid – natch.

  • Jane

    We used to go quite a lot but haven’t been in a couple of years (mostly due to moving house a bit further away). I was always surprised when I read reviews saying the service was snotty as that wasn’t our experience. Stefania always took time to chat to us about Sicily and the food, and she is particularly enthusiastic and knowlegeable about wine. When asked for recommendations she would sometimes bring us something interesting that wasn’t on the menu (I think she has a small stash of wines she brings back from Sicily – but not enough of them to add to the menu). I think it’s fair to say that the service here is on the cooler side compared to some places but we never had any issues. And the food was always excellent.

  • fiona

    I do remember friendly, or at the least, not-stroppy service when we ate here some years ago and our son knocked over a bottle of wine and essentially destroyed dinner about ten minutes in. But this is by the by, as the obvious highlight of this review is the concept of the polite anchovy. Absolutely superb. Have little mental image.

  • Kentishtowner

    I knew you’d like our polite anchovy, Fiona.

  • Katharine

    I’m afraid my experience of the service tallies with the above – I haven’t been back to Pane Vino after a special dinner there was ruined by the cold service several years ago – and I love Sardinian food! In our case my suspicion was that we were ignored, brought the wrong wine (the house rather than the Canonau we had ordered) and given very little attention when ordering because we were a party of three young(ish) women and they assumed we were just out for a pizza and a glass of wine.

    The icing on the cake was when they refused to accept more than one credit card – at a meal costing £50 per head we protested that we simply didn’t carry that amount of cash around with us. In the end, they only agreed to split the bill onto three cards because I said that otherwise I would like three separate bills. And yes the food was lovely, but my memory of the evening is thoroughly unpleasant.

    PS isn’t the dessert called Sebadas? I have amazing memories of sharing one in Northern Sardinia in the early 2000s – the most fragrant mountain honey and tangy goats cheese in super-light flaky pastry. Mmmmm.

  • Simon

    Hope the Pane Vino team will take the negative remarks about service in the spirit in which they are intended, ie disappointed but still wanting the place to succeed. I’m sure most of us would love to give the place another go – and cheering up a bit seems such an easy fix… Why not organise some kind of canapes and wine relaunch evening, via the Kentishtowner…? Charge a fiver a head, put on a smile and see what happens..?

  • Kentishtowner

    Katherine – I’ve checked and it’s definitely Seadas, although perhaps there are regional variations in its name. Agreed – sounds like an unpleasant experience!

    Simon – that’s a great idea. We’ll look into it.

  • NW5 neighbour

    I agree with both sides on this. The one time I ventured in the service was so frosty and unfriendly I haven’t dared go back in since. I had, in their defense, taken a child in with me which was clearly not the right thing to do although it was early and there were no other customers in for child to annoy and she was very well-behaved and we were quick. My daughter ordered pasta with tomato sauce but was erroneously given arrabiata which brought her out in a sweat, and me too when I tried it telling her, “Don’t be silly it’s heat hot, not spicy hot”. Ooops, she was right I was wrong — scorchio! But although owner acknowledged it was their mistake we were offered no apology, sympathy nor replacement dish. So, yeah, not planning to go back there in a hurry. And it’s a shame because our little outing had been a scouting trip to find a place to take a bunch of friends for dinner. However, I also agree that despite our unpleasant evening there, there are lots of potentially good things about it and it would be a quick and easy fix to remedy them and restore good nature to customers who seem to wish the place well despite everything.

  • Alison

    Same here – great food, grumpy service. I have been maybe four times and then gave up – services as bad-tempered as we received just ruins your evening.

  • Steve

    Charmless, frosty service. No smile, no welcome so no return. Simples. No wonder people give up on it when there are so many good friendly places in KT.

  • fiona

    Just making sure that everyone has finished opining for the evening before telling you about the polite anchovy. It is wearing brown cordouroy trousers and has a small bow tie.
    Simon’s relaunch idea is brilliant!

  • Katharine

    Re-reading the article, my mouth’s watering so much that if I could have the exact same meal for £45 per head, I’d manage without the smile! Aaah Vernaccia, Mirto, Pane Carasau, bottarga … I’ll bring cash.

  • Julie McNamee

    We’ve given this restaurant a few chances and been disappointed with the service every time. What we experienced was an extremely busy restaurant (this was a few years ago) with only one waitress to cope with a lot. My partner got a bit stroppy with the delays the last time and we ended up having to apologise – we know it wasn’t her fault, she just didn’t have enough help. I’m sure the food is good, but my memory of the place is unfortunately the bad service.

  • Gordon

    We have lived in KT for over 15 years and used to be PV regulars getting on well with the owner and loving the food. Around 4/5 years ago we had a series of fall outs mainly to do with payments, the final straw was when they refused to take a credit card payment. It really spoiled our evening and meant that we simply cannot return. I want local independent places to fill the High Street and no-one doubts the quality of the food at PV. However they need to recognise that if customers are not treated with civility and respect they will go elsewhere.

  • Jamie

    +1 for a review of Nuraghe!

  • James Elm

    Late to this, but just an echo of the comments above.

    The food is excellent and we used to be regulars, but in the end there were too frequent small gripes with front of house, either with us or with nearby tables, which in a hushed place like that can also taint an evening. Anyway, it got so that we felt they were doing us a favour letting us dine there.

    Given that it’s a “local”, not a West End joint, locals will likely decide they’ll have better evenings at friendlier Italian places with good but less stellar (and expensive) food like Delicious or Nuraghe or Enzo’s or for that matter the ciccetti at The Vine.

    Maybe the reinvention of KT as a “destination” with the opening of Pizza East gives Pane Vino an opportunity to take advantage of their location with a more enticing experience to attract new clientele. Hiring an experienced maitre-d and an efficient old-school waiter would be a start, because there’s always been very good things happening in the kitchen.

  • Jens

    My personal problem with PV is as follows.

    1) It is simply to expensive. At £50 per head, I can dine anywhere in London. This is a local place, simply to expensive for a simple evening out during the week.

    2) The value for money doesn’t stack up. For the price, I would expect much nicer decor, nicer toilets, and better service. I get so much more for my money elsewhere, it is simply not competitive.

    The need to up their game and bring their prices down. There are better places that cost less, it is simply not competitive as it is.

  • Adam

    Went for the first time recently. We’ve been to most of the local restaurants (Pel Parc the best by far in our humble) so Pane Vino was next on the list. I hadn’t read this review before so went with an open mind. I think our experience echos most of the above.

    – the food was excellent
    – the decor was tired to say the least (do you really need a bar in a small restaurant?)
    – the service was actually ok, the waitress and owner/chef showed an interest and were friendly enough without making us feel special
    – it was bl**dy expensive for what it was (I reitterate the food was of a high quality though)

    Now, I don’t mind paying a lot for local food as long as its very good and the experience is a bit of an event. Del Parc is expensive but I never feel like I haven’t got what I have paid for. But I left Pane Vino (as did the mrs) feeling like it was a let down. Personally, I’d refurb and make it a foodie’s paradise. Do some marketing, get people in the door, perhaps midweek special deals, tatsing menus etc and create a buzz. The food on offer deserves it….but I get the feeling that this won’t happen. Shame.

  • Alberto

    Went to PV a couple years ago as kept on reading good reviews, and have not been back since.

    Party of six. First thing that puts you off is the 1 pound cover per person, on top of 12.5% suggested tip.

    Garlic bread was tasty, just plain pizza dough with olive garlic oil. Mains consited of pizzas (good, above average, crispy and thin base with good toppings), veggy salads with buffala, and seafood pasta. All tasty. Tiramisu was average, home-made icecream quite good. House white was decent although very expensive.

    Bill came to around 140 pounds, which isnt terrible, average of 25-30 (not everyone ordered main), which isnt bad although for pasta and pizza I find it still quite expensive. Other more sofisticated dishes cost around 15-18 pounds. Service was very mediocre, in line with what others have said.

    When one of the diners asked if the service was included (he had not noticed that it was) the waitress said it was not. Not sure if this was a language misunderstanding or what, but again, not the most friendly or honest answer.

    I can get much more for 25-30 quid in most places in KT and elsewhere.

  • alistair mcintosh

    I went last night for the first time – your review was positive and a big part of my decision – food was great and service was friendly – I will go again – the pizza was excellent and the gnocchi great

    I liked the style of service – I hate effusive people

    The place was not as busy as it deserves to be- that must hurt the staff given the high quality

    By contrast last week I ate at a heaving Italian full of the types that go to the Edinburgh festival – supermarket pasta/butter instead of sauce/rotten mozzerella