Frenching, Italian-Style

Photo by Christian WalshMom always said breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Then she'd roll back over and sleep till noon, and I'd pedal over to my friend Steve's house, where they stacked French toast like cords of firewood. Between each golden slice of heaven was a stick of butter, and on top was a pitcher's worth of brown-tinted high fructose corn syrup. The final garnish—for flavor—were some dashes of powdered sugar. Then we'd race to see who could finish before it hardened into concrete. Therapy be damned! French toast became inextricably linked with syrup, butter and Steve's mom.

So walking into the Southern Italian-influenced Caffe Panini of Corona del Mar, the last thing I expected to find is some of the best damned French toast in Orange County. The restaurant looks too clean and well-decorated to be open this early. There's no flickering fluorescent lighting, psychedelic orange-covered booths or a wait staff in the middle of a sleep-deprivation experiment. Instead, a full-length storefront window lets sunlight pour in to illuminate charming Euro furniture, faux-stone walls and shiny, happy people. Two railings prevent guests from falling out into a seaside Italian villa depicted pseudo-trompe l'oeil.

How can the Italians outdo the French in this breakfast delicacy? Good morning! We're talking egg batter and bread! The French didn't invent it. Every culture has a variation on the recipe. Caffe Panini's secret? "It's the bread," explains our friendly server, Ginger Jones. Caffe Panini uses Italian Pandora in lieu of French bread for a final product that is newborn-chick fluffy and slightly sweet.

With both feet on the floor and the menu firmly gripped in your hands, force yourself to look past the omelets, sandwiches, granola, oatmeal and bagels and instead focus on the French toast. The rest of the food is great, but this is in a category all its own. No, really, it is—under "French toast."

Almost every other breakfast food must be drowned in syrup, butter or milk to attain palatability, French toast typically uses all three ingredients to move onto a higher plane of existence, beyond mere sustenance for the bourgeois. But at Caffe Panini, when the plate arrives, don't ask for butter and avoid the conditioned response to drown it in syrup. Next to a fruit cup of blushing strawberries and melon, two half-star-shaped pieces of French toast with dark grill lines rest under a light dusting of powdered sugar.

Each unadorned bite fills the mouth with an ambiguous goodness. What is that amazing flavor? Maybe it's a touch of chocolate liqueur or vanilla or orange or cardamom. You figure it out; I'm too busy eating. On the ziggurat of breakfast food, Caffe Panini's French toast rules from the top, well above every morning food with a "Mc" in the name or an English muffin in its construction. Even above Steve's mom's.

If Denny's and Starbucks were to violate Villa Nova, Caffe Panini would be the lovechild. There's no dress code—whatever you're wearing right now is fine—and the prices are only slightly north of IHOP's. Friends of French Toast, unite! And let's do it at Caffe Panini.

Caffe Panini, located at 2333 E. Pacific Coast Hwy., Corona del Mar, slings Orange County's best damned French toast daily, 7-11:30 a.m. (949) 675-8101. Breakfast for two, $15, food only. All major credit cards accepted.


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