Hillsborough is a charming little town, a place my wife and I frequently imagine ourselves living in. It’s small and quaint, but hip enough to boast its own LocoPops and WholeFoods outposts. A bit more stately than similarly funky Pittsboro, Hillsborough is home to some good restaurants, including at least one outstanding one: Panciuto.
Situated right on the town’s main street, the restaurant is distinguished modestly by a small black awning above the entrance. Inside, it’s very warm and cozy. The dining area is rather small, and, together with the diminutive bar (just a few stools) and a long-abandoned fireplace, as well as plenty of white Christmas lights, it makes for an intimate experience. This is an upscale restaurant, and the space feels elegant, but simple wooden tables and a few light-hearted prints along an exposed brick wall keep the place from seeming too fancy or stuffy. Even though the tables against the wall are arranged quite closely together, this is a great restaurant for a date or special occasion. Tiny fluted glasses of prosecco brought to the table shortly after seating reinforce this celebratory sentiment.
The menu generally represents a sort of hybrid of Italian and Southern American cooking. The restaurant is completely devoted to local ingredients; a box on one side of the menu shows you where just about every component of your meal comes from and the distance it has traveled. Impressively, these range from about walking distance (herbs) to no more than a couple hundred miles (NC seafood).
Panciuto is only open for dinner, Wednesday – Saturday, from 5:30pm – 8:30pm. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, small plates are the order of the evening. Our waiter informed us that, in general, these were appetizer sized portions, and suggested ordering two selections per person. Noticing the large plates around us, we were skeptical and went with the following 3 items:
- Ricotta gnocchi en crema with baby beet greens, sunny duck egg, vincotto, and asparagus ($12)
- Pappardelle with grilled pulled pork, shiitake mushrooms, arugula, mustard butter, and parmesan ($17)
- Grilled pork chop with buttered polenta, fried green tomatoes, and green-garlic tomato gravy ($16)
While we waited, a small bread selection arrived at the table. It featured a very slender slice of focaccia (fine) and a super-buttery soft and flaky parker house roll (better). But these were both trumped by a wedge of something whose composition most closely approximated that of a muffin, although it was sliced as though from a thin tea cake. The flavor was lemon poppy seed with just the right amount of rosemary. It was soft, delicate, and heavenly.
Thoughtfully, the waiter offered to bring us the first dish as an “appetizer” followed by the other dishes. This worked out perfectly. The gnocchi dish was beautifully presented, with tiny thimble-sized soft pillows of ricotta arranged around the egg, adorned with the cute microgreens. This was indeed a small dish – there weren’t more than two or three asparagus tips on the whole plate, but the balance of flavors was lovely. The vincotto brought a complex and subtle sweetness, and the egg contributed a luxurious richness. We were off to a great start.
The next two dishes were much more substantial, with the pasta in particular being enough to fill a hungry diner. The pork chop (an ossabaw heritage breed) represented the apotheosis of grilling. It was maybe a little overdone, but the flavor was exemplary. It sat on a small bed of gnocchi-shaped polenta balls and was topped by a few thin slices of excellent fried green tomato. A small amount of fresh tasting tomato sauce tied it all together beautifully. Almost as good was the pasta dish. As with the pork chop, the pulled pork in this dish had a terrific smokiness, but in this case the meat could have been just a little more tender. There was certainly plenty of it, and plenty of rich cheese as well – combined with the excellent homemade noodles, it made for wonderful comfort food on a cool night. I felt that the shiitake mushrooms, which were barely cooked, didn’t contribute much to the dish. I did like that the mustard butter and arugula lent a subtle lemony edge, but it wasn’t quite enough to balance out the cheesy creaminess of the dish. Still, it was delicious, even if the overall flavor profile wasn’t as sophisticated as that of the pork chop entrée.
For dessert, we opted for the “crema di cogne with sugar dusted cornmeal zeppole and soft whipped cream” ($6). This was basically two doughnuts with sort of a soft chocolate pudding/mousse accompaniment – another great value as it was perfect for two people. For me, the zeppole were rather average – light and airy, yes, but just fried dough. The cornmeal wasn’t lost in the dish, but didn’t really elevate it, either. The crema di cogne was rich and silky, and I really enjoyed the chocolate flavor with what seemed to be just a hint of liquor.
Overall, our dinner at Panciuto was one of the best meals we’ve had in the Triangle, and it’s easy to see why chef Aaron Vandemark was a James Beard award finalist for best chef in the Southeast. His restaurant delivers superb flavor in a lovely setting (and outstanding value for certain dishes). So while Hillsborough itself is worth a drive to check out, Panciuto makes the town all the more special.