A couple of years ago, Santa Ana officials proudly announced the opening of City Place, a bizarrely shaped development of live/work lofts ringing businesses, with more lofts in the back. They promised it would become another downtown, a shopping-and-dining destination the likes of which had never been seen in Orange County. It wasn't just the Great Recession that punctured this laughable hubris, but also horrible choices in restaurants by the developers: the execrable Geisha House, the laughable McCormick and Schmidt's, a Pinkberry that opened two years after the chain lost its relevancy. Sure, fellow tenants zPizza and Corner Bakery are fine chains, but there was no food renaissance, the condos went largely unsold, and City Place at night nowadays feels as eerie and desolate as the worst parts of Detroit.
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Into this suburban nightmare came Sharron Barshishat with Paninoteca Maggio. I initially felt sorry for him and considered Barshishat a sucker for bothering to open a business here—and then I tasted the espresso, derived from a gargantuan machine out of a steampunk novel. It jolts but is more than a donkey kick to the senses: Paninoteca Maggio's espresso is creamy, earthy, just slightly bitter, a liquid live wire that rivals Portola and Keán for the best of its kind in Orange County. And then I tasted the namesake paninis—a small list that makes up for lack of choices with flavors that play off one another with the ease of a Puccini libretto. The Amalfi features salty prosciutto; musky mozzarella; biting arugula; and the tang of pesto, balsamic and tomatoes. The Toscana's slow-roasted porchetta radiates with garlic; a meatball sandwich is so fluffy and juicy you want to barge into the kitchen to see if Barshishat's nona is making everything. Add the snugness of its setting—a tall man could stretch out his arms and nearly reach the counter if he stood near the entrance—and the effusiveness of Barshishat and his staff, and Panoniteca Maggio quickly became a deserved sleeper hit.
Not everything is perfect: the Nutella-and-peanut butter panini, while tasty enough, is barely a step up from what moms slap together for their kids. The hours are maddeningly short, due in part to its desolate surroundings. And the talents of Barshishat are so evident you want him to expand beyond paninis and salads. All with due time, though: The miracle worker has only been open since spring.
Paninoteca Maggio, 195 E. City Place Dr., Santa Ana, (714) 426-8095; www.paninotecamaggio.com.
This column appeared in print as "Panini Paradise In Hell."