Cafe Reviews

Vine Dining

As my colleague Booze Pig can attest, there's no shortage of little hole-in-the-wall joints to grab a cold Bud in this simmering city of ours.

But a glass of wine? Not quite as easy. I'm not talking about a too-warm pour of two-day-old cheap stuff from the corner dive, nor do I mean the high-end, overpriced selections of a sommelier. When it comes to decent, reasonably priced wine by the glass, served in an easygoing atmosphere where I need neither a reservation nor a can of Mace, I say, bring it on. If only good wine bars would multiply like Starbucks.

Nowadays, there's at least one decent wine bar in most parts of town. And while one of my old standbys, Postino, is housed in a former post office, the newest addition to my shortlist — worthy of repeat visits for its top-notch panini — is the size of a postage stamp.

Indeed, Centro Paninoteca has found its own niche in the Valley vino scene. This spot is easy to miss, especially considering the big, better-lit saloon next door, Handlebar J. The place is tiny — just 790 square feet — and accommodates fewer than 40 people. Originally, the building was home to Drinkwater's liquor store, and has since been an arcade, a sushi restaurant, a doughnut shop, and an art gallery. It can get crowded and loud, depending on when you stop by, but for a cozy, casual night out, that's fine by me — like a hip neighborhood bar with something extra.

Chef-owner Chris Cottingham opened Centro Paninoteca in early May, and his fledgling business is already bustling. Starting September 1, he plans to add lunchtime hours. In the meantime, he's spending his afternoons working on a 450-square-foot patio that will add another 25 or 30 seats. Cottingham's well-rounded resumé includes working for wine distributor Classico Wines and moonlighting as a waiter at the upscale Italian restaurant, Marcellino. Prior to that, he was general manager of Delux, the chic burger den on Camelback Road.

With several solid appetizers and salads, 10 different panini, and a daily market sandwich, Cottingham's affordable menu works equally well for a simple, satisfying meal or a prelude to drinking. I could go for either at Centro Paninoteca.

The bar itself seats about a half-dozen people, and there's another counter with a few more seats by the front door. Meanwhile, table service is geared more toward intimate dates than boisterous dinner parties, with a scattering of two- and four-tops. (I suppose you could luck out and put a couple of tables together, but I'd be wary of showing up with a big group, unless you don't mind standing around the bar.)

A wall sconce full of candles, votives all around, and a rope of white lights underneath the bar give the cocoa-colored room a smoldering glow, and a row of framed mirrors adds to the sparkle. With plenty of electronic lounge music like Thievery Corporation on the sound system, Centro Paninoteca nails that sexy vibe that goes so well with wine, a huddle of friends, and some good-looking strangers.

But it's far from snooty. I found it charming, and kind of homey, to see a fridge behind the bar covered with memos, next to a big chalkboard of daily specials. The wait staff is welcoming, and Cottingham himself is happy to chat about wine, or maybe even offer an impromptu tasting. You'll find a dozen and a half unusual wines by the glass (with an emphasis on Italian), all kinds of cocktails, and a beer list that includes some interesting imports and craft brews.

Everything I tried at Centro was fresh and flavorful, with bread baked daily by Arizona Bread Company, and noticeably nice produce. Bruschetta made use of both, with several long, slender toasts topped with an aromatic heap of diced tomatoes, onion, garlic, and basil. Even a basic mixed-greens salad — a pile of baby lettuces tumbled in light vinaigrette, with just a couple of slices of ripe tomato — was tasty in its simplicity.

Ceviche was the standout appetizer, with sweet peas, bits of onion, and plump chunks of shrimp in a sweet tomato-lime broth that was just spicy enough to make my cheeks feel warm, without overwhelming the flavors. It was a decent portion, but I could have used a few more toasts to scoop up the goods. Luscious slices of smoked salmon on a bed of baby arugula were generously dished up, too. And the mixed olive and cheese plate — with herb-marinated olives and some crumbly chunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano — was fine, but I'd love to see Cottingham introduce a real cheese plate with a rotating selection.

As for the panini, well, where to begin? I have a couple winners in mind, but I'll start with the one that was the envy of the table: grilled gorgonzola and fig on sourdough. Man, everyone wanted a bite of that. The gorgonzola was tangy but not too strong, complementing the flavor of the bread; figs were a sweet foil. It was a far cry from a plain ol' grilled cheese. (But even the "grilled cheese" here rocked, thanks to fresh mozzarella, sweet roasted tomato, prosciutto, and arugula.)

There was also a killer daily market sandwich — with tender, very thinly sliced roast beef, Havarti, roasted red peppers, and baby greens — that hooked me from the first bite. I hope it makes an encore appearance. The vegetable panino contained a good variety of veggies, and the chicken panino had impressively moist meat, slathered with pesto mayonnaise. All of the sandwiches came with a side of habit-forming sweet potato chips.

I also liked how a few of the panini included more than one kind of cheese. On the Medi panino, feta and fontina made a delicious combo, with roasted peppers, capers, Kalamata olives and spinach, while the Cappo, an Italian-style sammy with capicolla, roasted peppers, olives, and pepperoncinis, oozed melted mozzarella and fontina.

There weren't any desserts on the menu, but that's okay — I was relieved that I didn't have to save room for anything else. Besides, panini are clearly the main attraction here.

I already know I'll be back for those, but beyond the food, there's yet another reason to visit Centro Paninoteca: late-night hours. The kitchen serves up the full menu until 2 a.m.