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Charleston Post and Courier Review

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Penachios has Italian panache

Like people, restaurants sometimes try to be something that they're not. In either case, the phenomenon usually results in disappointment.

Penachios does not suffer from this problem. It is right on the mark, smack in the heart and soul of Northern Italian dining country.

The place beats to the pulse of West Ashley. Casual enough for family dining but doused with enough polish for sophisticate appeal, it's a place where just about anyone can feel comfortable. The service, minus a couple of minor bloopers, was some of the best I've had (locally) outside of downtown's fiercely competitive restaurants. Open just under 15 years, Penachios has found its food groove, too, in the well-practiced hands of chef Hodges Campbell, who has been there since the restaurant opened. A straightforward steak, seafood and pasta place, the food is dependable and solid, if not earth-shatteringly innovative.

I like food like that and I enjoyed this, my first visit to Penachios. It's a small, ambling bungalow of a place with subdued gray and white faux marble walls, soft music and dim lighting. The requisite roped Chianti bottles are there, but not in excess. Being here felt just like sitting down before a crackling fire on a cold winter afternoon. The easy mood lured me into settling in to enjoy the feast.

Our waiter led us smoothly there. He was on top of every detail of the evening's extensive specials list, regular menu descriptions and wine suggestions. So much so, I almost expected him to be in a tuxedo shirt with a bow tie and black pants, but his relaxed, smiling nature kept things down to earth.

Penachios serves assorted wines by the bottle, but also offers half-liter carafes of assorted house wines for $9. Since we were discussing food options across many categories, we decided to go with a half-liter each of house Placido Pinot Grigio and Copper Ridge Merlot. Price wise, it was very convenient to choose from several varieties each of red and white house wines in smaller portions, instead of having to lock into glass or bottle options. The middle size was just right.

Appetizer ordering went smoothly. Not long after, a linen-lined basket of oven-warmed loaves of garlic bread arrived. The aroma of fresh garlic and butter infused the air. The crust was crunchy and dense, but yielded to a cottony soft center so rich and buttery it melted like cotton candy with each bite. Appetizers arrived with a little confusion, but once the plates were re-issued to their proper places, it was smooth sailing.

Fried calamari ($8), lobster bisque ($3), hot antipasto ($15, for two people), and steamed mussels ($9), all seafood dishes, ran the gamut from prime to agreeable. Surprisingly, the calamari, which is so often purchased frozen, battered and dipped in the fryer, was in the prime category. The squid was clean tasting and coated in a buttery, crisp batter and served with a fresh-tasting, chunky tomato sauce. Just lovely, its sea-born cousins (shrimp, mussels, scallops and salmon) resonated with the same kind of fresh detail in the antipasto. All were spectacularly fresh and poached to moist perfection in one of the best sauces of its kind that I've ever tasted. A hot blend of wine, butter and mollusk liquor, it artfully wove its way through a series of textures and flavor layers that successfully begged to be slowly savored. The bisque began well. It had a pale pink base with chunks of steamed lobster and was served hot. The taste was not as good, as it was cloaked in the gummy taste of flour. Surely, this was the result of an undercooked roux used to thicken the sauce. The mussels were neither great nor terrible. Their flesh was somewhat shriveled, and the otherwise good garlic and wine sauce was too salty.

There was a pregnant wait between appetizer and entree courses, but the menu advises that since each dish is cooked to order, it "may take longer to dine with us."

The lasagna ($11) was worth a daylong wait. It was so good, my guest barely could bring herself to forfeit a bite for me to taste. Dense and rich with bechamel, sweet Italian sausage, tomato sauce and acres of mild cheese, it was the stuff of Italian dreams. Also noteworthy was the spaghetti and meatballs ($9). Our waiter had said when ordering that I would smell the ingredients with one cut into the meatballs. He was right. Garlic, spices and beef struck me all at once in one heady whiff. They were a little dry and the slightly overcooked angel hair pasta (not spaghetti) was a little too feeble to stand up to the sturdy meatballs. The gorgonzola seafood special ($18) was a creamy take on the hot antipasto appetizer, and a good one. Perfectly cooked strands of fettuccine wove their way through an ultra-creamy sauce punctuated with the aged flavor of gorgonzola cheese. Italians rarely pair seafood with cheese, but here the combination of ultra-fresh salmon, scallops, shrimp and mussels worked beautifully. The singular entree disappointment was the veal piccata ($18), and it disappointed all the way. The delicate butter and wine sauce was clobbered by capers, the veal was mushy and bland, and the spaghetti was overcooked almost to the point of being paste.

Even though nobody consciously ordered dessert, a glass of spumoni ($5) mysteriously appeared. Our waiter insisted one guest had ordered it. Sometimes these things don't really warrant analysis, especially in this case, because the frothy mousse and cool ice cream studded with sponge cake, chocolate and pistachios were delicious. Cappuccino, ground and brewed to order (we smelled the beans from our table), was a lovely finale.

Penachios has a lounge that's separate from the restaurant, where live music is played every Tuesday and Thursday nights. Sometimes, musicians also will play on other evenings.

We couldn't resist dancing a little bit of our night, and our meal, away. Penachios hits the nail on the head when it comes to being a very pleasant neighborhood restaurant serving very good Northern Italian favorites.

Penachios Seafood & Italian Restaurant
2447 Ashley River Rd., West Ashley
402-9640

FOOD: 3 stars

SERVICE: 3 1/2 stars

AMBIENCE: 3 stars

PRICE: $$$

AMBIENCE: Relaxed and attractive.

SERVICE: Extra professional.

HOURS: Mon.-Thu., 4 p.m.-10 p.m., Fri./Sat., 4 p.m.-11 p.m.

PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, $2-$15, Entrees, $8-$18.

OUR FAVORITES: Garlic bread, calamari, hot antipasto, lasagna, gorgonzola seafood platter, spaghetti and meatballs, spumoni.

VEGETARIAN: Eggplant Parmesan, salads and fettuccine alfredo. Chef will attempt to accommodate special requests.

WINE LIST: 30 wines available by the bottle, $17-$300. House wine by the glass ($4.50), half-liter ($9) and bottle ($15).

CC: All major.

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.

SMOKING: Lounge and smoking section.

RESERVATIONS: Recommended on weekends.

This review was done by Holly Herrick and published on Thursday, October 16, 2003