Timing is everything when it comes to wine and food, not to mention restaurant reviews. So it's fair to say my timing was supremely rotten when, after several meals in mid-2015 at what was then known as Ristorante Panorama, I made the call to inform Luca Sena that I was about to write a review of his restaurant.
"Are you [bleeping] kidding me?" he replied with classic Neapolitan swagger. "My chef of 23 years just left!"
OK. There went a lot of time and hundreds of dollars in expenses as we made the correct decision (despite being up against deadline) to push "pause" on the review and wait to see what the next chapter for this Old City pioneer might be.
Now, after returning to experience the delight of a hand-pulled burrata stuffed with cacio e pepe-flavored cream and the wonder of braciola reimagined for the era of sous-vide, I'm especially glad I did. The restaurant, now called simply Panorama, is better - and more relevant - than ever.
One could say Sena's timing for a chef change could not have been better. But it's rather what he did after that 2015 call that impressed me most. He still had one of Philly's great wine destinations in the restaurant at his Penn's View Hotel, which features a 120-bottle Wine Keeper that is the largest single wine-by-the-glass preservation system in the world, as certified by Guinness itself. But the classic Italian cuisine that might have been cutting edge when it opened in 1990 had grown stale, predictable, and dated, especially by the dynamic standards of Philly cucina post-Vetri and Le Virtù.
"I go out to eat and I see it," said Sena, 66, not naming names. "They're good! And I said, 'Wow, I'm going to be left behind here if I don't change.' "
And so dropping "Ristorante" from the name was hardly the only change that came to Panorama. Sena spent more than a million dollars on a renovation, bringing in designer Marguerite Rodgers to update the space, honing the palazzo shine of its endless marble surfaces down to a more muted contemporary matte, replacing the fussy linens and Florentine wall murals with bare oak tabletops, art photography, and a brighter, modern look, with new wrought-iron and blown-glass doors behind the bar to allow more light.
Sena's most important move, though, was hiring a talented young chef in Matthew Gentile, 33, an alum of Lacroix at the Rittenhouse with stints at Ela and Parc, who arrived at a kitchen used to cookie-cutter vegetable medleys and tired pasta trios and who instantly went into update mode, sourcing seasonal local farm ingredients, turning to modern techniques, starting a fresh-bread program, and making his own cheese.
When presented with a starter as striking as his hen of the woods - a cast-iron-roasted pouf of a coral-shaped mushroom set over dark swirls of black garlic pesto - I can understand why Sena decided to trim "Ristorante" from the name. The new Panorama's food is still inspired by Italian traditions, but it's now presented with a decidedly fresh American approach.
The meatball gets enriched with trendy Wagyu beef and supersized over a pedestal of polenta glossed with sage brown butter and mahogany veal ragù. A pancetta made from lamb lends a gamy depth to the excellent paccheri all'amatriciana. Gentile takes another classic Italian flavor combo, the black pepper and Pecorino twang of cacio è pepe usually featured in pasta, and infuses it to spark the creamy fluff of cheese inside the beggar's purse of his handmade burrata mozzarella.
The polenta beneath his crispy duck breast with huckleberry mostarda is brightened with cheese made from fresh goat's milk brought by Green Meadow Farm. Perfectly seared sweet scallops are dabbed with a zingy zabaglione sauce studded with piquant capers. A braciola roulade of veal skirt steak, gently cooked sous-vide for a day instead of simmered to shreds in the usual gravy, was sublimely tender but still intact beneath garlic croutons and a light Genovese ragù - the ultimate new school/old school update. And it was perfect with a glass of Due Amici, a red blend that Panorama's staff made in tandem with Penn's Woods in Chadds Ford.
There were a handful of creative misfires. A snack of mortadella sandwiches wrapped in savory zeppoli fritters were too doughy (and subsequently removed from the menu). A risotto lightened with persimmon was dry and forgettable. A promising twist on fettuccine carbonara with smoked mushrooms lacked the luxurious texture of a sauce supposedly thickened with duck egg, and pasta ribbons were broken into stubby bits.
For the most part, though, Gentile's pastas were outstanding. His elegant tortellini filled with soulfully braised lamb shoulder tanged with a hint of eggplant caponata snapped against chips of sunchokes shaved over the top. Tenderly braised beef shanks enriched with marrow and fontina cheese filled large ravioli beneath sautéed white mushrooms, and a sunny tomato sauce brightened the smaller moon-shaped agnolotti with creamy burrata cheese.
A classic Bolognese gains extra depth with wild boar and smoky scamorza cheese. Gentile's lobster crespelle goes against the unofficial Italian prohibition against mixing seafood and cheese. But sweet ricotta is the perfect canvas for the fistfuls of fresh crab and nuggets of lobster that get rolled inside crepes and set over a rust-colored, fennel-rich pool of lobster brodo and topped with a green froth of basil hollandaise.
What to pair with those decadent manicotti? Wine maestro William Eccleston might do an intense La Spinetta "Langhe" sauvignon blanc, or a lush Casale del Giglio viognier to match the crustacean richness, or perhaps an herbal "Saumur" French chenin blanc to call out that basil hollandaise.
But, really, with 120 bottles open and still fresh inside the Wine Keeper (plus 40 more available by the glass), the vino possibilities are seemingly endless, with exploration encouraged by the 30 different flights of five small pours that arrive in glasses suspended like stairsteps from a clever iron tree. (Not enough? There are 2,500 more "reserve" bottles downstairs.) And the collection goes far beyond the expected Italian wines to the biodynamic trend (an earthy but pure Chinon from Breton), esoteric grapes (aligoté, Jacquère, dry furmint, schioppettino) and collector rarities (top-notch Barolos, rising Cali stars, and sauternes) that are rarely, if ever, poured by the glass.
Such liquid riches, of course, have been Panorama's prime draw all along, even if the unfortunate timing of its launch in the early 1990s - just as Philly was entering a two-decade obsession with beer - overshadowed all things wine.
As I sense a rekindling interest in wine right now, the fact that Panorama is a rare survivor means the timing has once again turned in its favor. But, this time, the food finally has begun living up to the drink.