Food & Wine magazine has added a level of democracy to its annual Best New Chef awards: the public can vote for the nominees from 10 regions across the country for the People's Choice Best New Chef 2011 winner. Among the nominees from the Southeast is chef Aaron Vandemark, who owns Panciuto in Hillsborough. To vote go HERE.
About the nomination, Vandemark, 33, said, "Obviously it's nice to be recognized for what anyone who owns their own business knows is a lot of hard work."
Vandemark, a Jordan High School graduate, was studying economics at Emory University when he realized his future should be in the world of food instead of finance. During the summer before his senior year, he held a 9-to5 day-job at a financial firm and would rush to his night job as a bar back at a restaurant in Atlanta's Buckhead neighborhood. "It became clear to me that I liked the restaurant world," Vandemark said.
By that time, Vandemark's parents had moved to Hillsborough. He returned to this area and worked at Il Palio before deciding to go to culinary school. After graduating from Johnson & Wales University, he returned to Atlanta but knew he and his wife wanted to come back home. "I knew opening my own restaurant was the goal," he said.
In 2006, Vandemark opened Panciuto. A year later, Greg Cox gave the restaurant 3 1/2 stars on a 4-star scale.
Below is a copy of Greg's review:
Low-Key Highlight in Hillsborough
March 2, 2007
By Greg Cox
At the bottom of the menu at panciuto, in the space where the name of the chef/proprietor is customarily listed, you'll find the name of Aaron Vandemark. You'll also find the names of everyone else who works at the restaurant, from waiter to dishwasher. The democratic gesture seems fitting in Hillsborough, a town still small enough that you get the impression everyone knows everyone else by name. More importantly, it's a telling clue as to the personality of the chef -- and in turn, the style of the restaurant itself.
In this era of spotlight-seeking celebrity chefs, Vandemark is an anomaly. Although many chefs will tout even the briefest stint at a famous restaurant as a career highlight, getting Vandemark to drop names is a challenge on the order of opening an oyster with a plastic spoon. (I was able to coax Il Palio and Fearrington House out of him.)
With his talent, he could easily have opened Panciuto, his first restaurant, in a high-profile spot such as Glenwood South or Franklin Street. Instead, he chose Hillsborough -- about as far from the center of the action as it gets -- primarily because his family lives there. When he opened Panciuto in June of last year, he did so with so little fanfare that most people still haven't heard of it, even though it's clearly one of the most significant additions to the Triangle dining scene in the past year.
Most people outside Hillsborough, I should say. The locals have discovered Panciuto in such numbers that if you plan on dining there -- and I strongly recommend that you do -- then reservations are practically a must, especially on weekends.
When you arrive, you'll be welcomed by wait staff who deftly walk a fine line between sophisticated polish and small-town friendliness. That description, as it happens, is equally apt for the dining room decor, a seamless melding of richly upholstered chairs, fresh flowers on tables dressed in crisp white linens, and a life-size portrait of Mark Twain with a frog (of Calaveras County fame, no doubt) peeking out of his pocket.
You'll be handed a menu of contemporary Italian fare with an occasional Southern accent whose brevity belies its variety and inventiveness. Not long after you're seated, you'll be served a complimentary small glass of Prosecco; true to form, Vandemark doesn't use the amuse-bouche as an opportunity to show off his culinary skills.
The menu offers ample opportunity to put those skills to the test, and chances are you'll find yourself returning repeatedly for follow-up samplings as the offering evolves with the season. As winter turns to spring, an earthy starter of braised oxtails with pan-browned gnocchi makes way for salmon carpaccio, which in turn may yield to a salad of lump crab and beluga lentils topped with a fried egg and mizuna. Artichokes may be dropped from Vandemark's distinctive antipasto platter, but you'll hardly miss them as you enjoy the rest of the platter, whose highlights include braised red peppers, fried mortadella, and whipped goat cheese and honey. And if the superb (and massive) olive oil-braised duck legs have rotated off the starter list the next time you visit, you'll find savory consolation in a house-made duck sausage with goat cheese grits and vincotto.
Same goes for entrees. When North Carolina shrimp are plentiful, Vandemark may pair them with calamari and black and white tagliolini pasta in a lightly spicy, arugula-spangled tomato sauce. When the shrimp aren't available, a dish featuring lobster, guanciale and mizuna with house-made tagliatelle (a somewhat broader noodle than tagliolini) in a tarragon-tomato sauce is equally rewarding. And when rapini (aka broccoli raab) isn't at its peak, its place may be taken by green kale as a companion to the seared, tomato sauced strip steak in bistecca alla pizzaiola.
One dish, whose flavors are associated with fall but whose ingredients are relatively independent of seasonal variations, has proved so popular that it has earned semi-permanent status on the menu: sweet pumpkin-Amaretto ravioli in sage cream-brown butter. To say its popularity is deserved is an understatement.
Miscues are rare, and they're never more severe than a slightly overdone steak or bland-tasting roasted olives (part of a recent antipasto offering). Since most dishes are sensibly portioned, you shouldn't have trouble leaving room for dessert. Regardless of your choice -- chocolate polenta cake, gooey minted pine nut tart, or (my favorite) warm apple cake with cinnamon ice cream -- you won't regret having spent the calories.
Panciuto's exclusively Italian wine list is deceptively modest in length (18 wines, most available by the glass), but it's quality through and through.
In recent years, Hillsborough has landed several restaurants that are good enough to save locals a drive to Raleigh or Chapel Hill when they're in the mood to dine out. Without doubt, Panciuto is the first restaurant in Hillsborough that's worth a drive in the other direction. But don't tell Vandemark that. He'll probably try to talk you out of it.
110 S. Churton St., Hillsborough
Rating: 3 1/2 stars
Atmosphere: elegant but not stuffy
Service: polished and friendly
Recommended: pretty much everything
Open: Dinner Tuesday-Saturday.
Other: Visa, MasterCard; beer and wine (excellent, exclusively Italian list); smoke-free; accommodates children.
The N&O's critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories:
4 stars: Extraordinary.
3 stars: Excellent.
2 stars: Good.
1 star: Fair.
Zero stars: Poor
For descriptions and reviews of more restaurants, use the searchable restaurant database at http://triangle.com/dining/.