Panelle never caught on in New York the way falafel did; I’ve mentioned panelle to foodies who’ve been taken aback that it exists, because they had no idea. So give thanks to Zito’s (7604 Third Avenue), the sandwich shop and craft-beer emporium, for introducing the sandwich to this generation of Bay Ridgites—as far as I can tell, no other restaurant in the neighborhood offers one on its menu.
Zito’s opened in Bay Ridge early last year, so it’s still a relative newcomer; then, it was the company’s third restaurant, after the flagship in Park Slope, which closed in 2013, and a second in that neighborhood, which closed last month—which means the Bay Ridge location is the last standing. (The owners are Bensonhurst natives and Xaverian alums, so the move to Bay Ridge made cultural sense, as well as economic sense—rent is much cheaper here!)
A panelle traditionally consists of battered and fried chickpea-flour fritters, and chefs typically pile on more ingredients and foodstuffs to make it their own; Ferdinando’s Focacceria in Carroll Gardens adds ricotta and Romano. Zito’s “special” panelle sandwich is similarly topped with ricotta and parmesan, but the 50-cents more expensive “modern” is vegan, at least as far as I could tell, and as far as the-guy-who-answered-the-phone-when-the-restaurant-first-opened could tell.
The base isn’t a ball, like the Middle Eastern chickpea-based falafel, but thin slices, sort of like a blander cut of gyro meat. These are folded up to form a substantial middle between two pieces of Bensonhurst-baked semolina. It gets its vinegary flavor from a generous amount of balsamic, which especially infuses the mixed greens and red peppers. (There’s also a little lemon in there, though to my tastebuds it’s lost to the balsamic.) I always feel like this sandwich is missing something; it’s probably cheese. But I think a vegan could spice it up with something else—hummus, perhaps. Then again, I might just be trying to turn this into a falafel.
And panelle is never going to replace the falafel; you’ll catch me at Hazar, Tanoreen or Al Safa a lot more often than Zito’s. But a little cultural, culinary diversity is good. Plus, I want to see a place like Zito’s succeed in Bay Ridge—the prices might be relatively high, but so’s the quality of the food and drink.