TURNING the corner from Grey Street on to the cobbled street of High Bridge, Panis Cafe makes a welcoming sight for sore eyes for two ladies seeking a cool spot for a late lunch.
The authentic Italian cafe/restaurant, run by the Pani family (made up of five brothers and one sis), is a haven amid the hustle and bustle of the city centre.
And for us ladies in a hurry it was the perfect spot for a hearty lunch, which was turned around in pretty quick time. Handy too, if you’re after a quick bite to eat pre-theatre.
Those with long memories will remember the eaterie from its simple beginnings as a small cafe, but still with that indefinable great vibe.
Remarkably, it’s 18 years old now and still going strong with the establishment having expanded over the years to encompass a rear restaurant.
Staff told us with pride that the busy restaurant’s coming-of-age birthday was due to be celebrated the day after we visited.
Although the front of the cafe enjoys natural light, the back restaurant is artificially lit and while cosy and imbued with ambience in the evening, can appear a touch gloomy in the daytime.
I only remembered this as we turned down seats in the front of the restaurant for a table at the back!
Here it is simply furnished in rustic style with wooden floorboards and undressed, sturdy wooden tables with paper napkins, and warm orange walls.
Display cases show Italian nick-nacks and chalkboards are dotted around the walls with various dessert and wine options.
Daughter Serena had a view of the old-style serving hatch from the kitchen, which she was rather taken with, watching the chefs go about their business.
We were on a parking meter and since eagle-eyed traffic wardens in Newcastle never miss a trick, we had one eye on the clock.
A chalkboard with a list of lunchtime specials was already in place on our table.
The ricotta and porcini ravioli, £6, caught my eye while Serena opted for tortellini with ricotta and spinach, £6.20, from the main lunchtime menu. There are no pizzas on the menu but everything else from soups, toasties, appetisers such as bruschetta, antipasto and piadine flatbreads, and pasta dishes as well as hearty fillers such as sausage casserole, chicken and sea bass dishes.
Our orders were quickly dispatched and we sipped glasses of mango juice, £1.60, and a small glass of Trebbiano house white wine for me, a bargain at £2.45.
We liked the relaxed feel of what is evidently a popular eaterie, the staff were super-friendly, and there were a few other mums and daughters resting weary legs after an afternoon’s sales shopping.
Some had popped in for a coffee and snack, others were sharing a bottle of wine. It looks the sort of place that offers all things.
We shared a starter of Panis bruschetta, £3.25, a doorstop-sized piece of toasted crusty bread laden with goodies, which was just a little on the cool side. It came spread with black olive pate, and topped with large slice of Provolone cheese and sun-dried tomatoes.
It was ample for two, and the strong flavours of the olive spread and the mild smoky flavour of the thin cheese worked well.
We were impressed with the attentive, speedy service as starter dishes were whisked away and mains quickly brought to the table.
My fresh pasta parcels filled with ricotta and mixed porcini were tossed in a very tasty buttery, white wine sauce containing sweet roasted cherry tomatoes, onion, garlic and fresh mint.
The ravioli parcels were huge, the serving a hearty bowlful, and the sauce standout. It was such a satisfying dish – and felt good to put a lining on the tummy on a wintry day.
The only problem is, you forget just how filling ravioli is ... I couldn’t do it full justice but managed two-thirds of the dish. What a lightweight!
Serena tucked into her equally tasty ring-shaped pasta pieces, filled with ricotta and spinach, tossed in olive oil and rosemary, which she likened to Christmas tree needles, and topped with pecorino cheese.
A big bowlful this was too – there’s no stinting on portions at Panis.
She normally goes for a plainish pizza/pasta but was glad she’d tried something different and found it extremely flavoursome.
We couldn’t resist a sweet something to finish off. My eye was drawn to the offer of a post-Yuletide slice of Italian pandoro Christmas cake, £2.95.
The waitress was dispatched to check if the offer was still on.
It was – and the daughter saw staff cut a huge wedge of the sweet bread cake from a boxed offering. The cake, a favourite of mine at Christmas, is made using eight-pointed pans and dusted with icing sugar to represent snow-clad Alpine mountains.
It was brought to the table, dressed up with whistles and bells – a huge wedge of cake sat alongside a pool of chocolate sauce and dollops of fresh cream drizzled with sauce also.
Actually, it didn’t need all the extras, I would have enjoyed it just as much as a simple slice without all the sweet add-ons, with my frothy cappuccino, £1.65, which was excellent.
The daughter’s choice of profiteroles, £3.95, two giant offerings filled with chocolate sauce and coated in white chocolate and cream, also with extra dollops of fresh cream, and chocolate zig-zags, made for a very sweet ending.
We liked the ambience of Panis, the simple rustic dishes, and felt like we’d had a really good feed. And all for just under £30.
It’s no wonder it’s something of an institution in the city.
Address: Panis Cafe, 61 High Bridge, Newcastle. Tel: 0191 232 4366.
Open: Daytime menu, 10am-5pm, Mon to Sat. Evening menu, 5-10pm, Mon to Sat.
First impressions: Smart exterior on cobble-stoned High Bridge. Like a Tardis inside.
Welcome: Big smiles from friendly, industrious staff.
Style, design and furnishings: Simple rustic feel to decor. Cosy and inviting. Warm orange walls, wooden furniture and floors.
Service: Informal, but staff are cheerful and attentive. Excellent for when you're in a hurry.
Value: Very good.
Disabled facilities: Accessible.
We liked the relaxed feel of what is evidently a popular eaterie, the staff were super-friendly