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Paninoteca: Perfect lunch comes to Forest Hills

That's what we expect for Paninoteca, a new eatery on Metropolitan Avenue in Forest Hills that bills itself as an "Italian gourmet panini pasta bar." They have found the sweet spot between too elaborate for lunch and grungy. It's hard to strike a balance between feeling like you're having dinner in the middle of the day and eating boring food in uninviting surroundings, but Paninoteca walks that line. They're the new go to place for a luscious lunch or light supper. Paninoteca has taken over the digs that were most recently vacated by Uncle Joe's Steakhouse. As with Uncle Joe's, it is owned by Giuseppe Vitale, who is also the chef and owner of La Vigna, the highly regarded, more formal Italian restaurant down the block. The interior hasn't changed much from the Uncle Joe's tenure. The menu hones in on three lunchable categories - panini, pasta and salads. Panini, as one would guess from the establishment's name, are the main emphasis. You can safely choose any of these sandwiches that strike your fancy because they have the two essentials really right - first-rate filling ingredients and fantastic, fresh breads. Their breads are fragrant, crusty and elastic. We swooned over the Fuma, homemade foccacia filled with smoked loin of pork, sun-dried tomatoes, broccoli rabe and sweet peppers. The Cicciano was another winner, filled with grilled chicken breast, ham, homemade mozzarella, crispy bacon and arugula on a whole-wheat roll. There are various combinations of mainly Italian ingredients, including one or two vegetarian options. French fries accompany all the panini.Paninoteca lists seven soups plus a soup of the day on their menu. Their soups are hearty and satisfyingly homey. Their lentil soup was the kind of sustenance we craved on a recent nippy afternoon. They would pair well with either their salads or panini, but both are so substantially portioned that only the most insatiable could manage both. We wish that they would offer a cup of soup and half panini or small salad combo.There is an admirable collection of very gratifying salads here. Their house salad defies expectations with olives, capers, asparagus, cucumbers and mozzarella tossed with mixed greens and dressed with balsamic vinaigrette. Insalata con salmone was a marvel. Pan-seared salmon, cooked to the ideal degree of doneness, not dry, rests on a bed of mixed greens, Portobello mushrooms and diced tomatoes with a tartly sweet Dijon mustard dressing.The pasta dishes showed less imagination than the other categories, but still yielded some worthy options, especially if there is a vegetarian in your party. The pasta used in the stuffed shells, fettucine alfredo and manicotti is homemade. The capellini primavera, thin spaghetti tossed with garlic, oil mixed vegetables with a touch of tomato sauce, was deftly prepared with a light touch. The vegetables retained their inherent textures and were not overwhelmed by the sauce.The Bottom LinePaninoteca fulfills a real need at that end of Forest Hills. There is enough variety on the menu to stave off boredom for many repeat visits. Their prices are very affordable, with nothing on the menu exceeding $8.75. Their only glaring flaw is the pace of their service, which can be excruciatingly glacial, even when they're not busy. They are still very new, so let's cut them some slack while they iron out the kinks. For a delicious casual meal, they've got the right stuff.Paninoteca100-05 Metropolitan Ave.Forest Hills, NY 11375718-268-3520Cuisine: Light, casual ItalianSetting: Small, cheerfulService: Friendly but slowHours: Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.Reservations: OptionalAlcohol: Wine and beerParking: StreetDress: CasualChildren: Child-friendly menuMusic: NoTakeout: Yes, free local deliveryCredit Cards: YesNoise Level: AcceptableHandicap Accessible: YesA SAMPLE FROM THE MENUFuma panini É $8.50Lentil soup É $5.75Cappellini primavera É $7.95House salad É $6.75Insalata con salmone É $8.25

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