AN ECLECTIC WEST BRIGHTON EATERY CELEBRATES THE GOOD LIFE WITH A MAJOR EXPANSION AND LARGER-THAN-LIFE MENU
BY ERIK SCHONING • PHOTOS BY ALEX BARRETO
West Brighton’s Panini Grill has long served as a neighborhood gathering hub, a place to break bread (and share pasta) over wine and laughter. A recent expansion and renewed focus on parties, events, and large groups means that for Staten Islanders, the party doesn’t ever have to stop.
Peter Macri, who runs the restaurant with his brother Sal, is no stranger to the Staten Island restaurant scene. At age 20, he was already an industry veteran, leading his first pizzeria, but his kitchen career began even earlier. “I started working at a neighborhood pizzeria when I was 11,” he said. “And I just fell in love with the business. It was a big learning experience.”
Panini Grill has been on Forest Avenue for nine years, which in the restaurant business is close to a lifetime. Macri credits his success with his past experiences in every facet of the food business, from his first stint running a pizzeria to his time working for an Italian food distributor. Running a successful restaurant requires a balance of business savvy and creativity in the kitchen, a rare balance to strike.
“All the knowledge I learned over the years and being on the other side of the business, the sales part, really brought me to where I am today,” Macri said. “I took a little bit of everything, all my past experience, and applied it. Now it’s about constantly thinking outside of the box, and coming up with ideas and different ways to grow your business.”
During the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, a time when many restaurants were simply struggling to stay afloat, Macri was looking to expand. He bought the building that housed Panini Grill and opened up an additional dining room, called La Stanza, next door, plus a back garden, Il Giardino. As Macri explained, the expansion was an intimidating process, but well worth it.
Today it’s rare that Macri and his front-of-house staff have to turn diners away, even on a busy Friday or Saturday night. No longer does the restaurant close down for parties. Since the expansion, there have been parties without end: christenings, baptisms, graduations, birthday parties, baby showers, wedding showers.
“Before, we used to just be one dining room with 60 seats,” Macri said. “Now we have 140 seats. There’s a menu for every party. We’re just trying to be different and diversify ourselves. Our customers have options now. They can rent a room, or they can rent out the whole restaurant.”
Close your eyes and think of your favorite Italian dish. Chances are, Macri and his kitchen staff serve it. Pizza, gnocchi, a lineup of antipasti, steaks, chicken francese, plus those famous paninis. Keeping a large menu can be difficult; Macri, with his background in food distribution, understands that better than anyone. But a maximalist menu has been one of his calling cards, and a simple way to ensure that customers know he’s got more up his sleeve than good sandwiches.
“Our name is very deceiving,” Macri said. “When people think Panini Grill, they think it’s a lunch spot paninis, salads, and pasta. But we’re way more than just paninis. Tomahawk steaks, pork chops, veal chops, fresh fish, homemade pasta, pizza. We do it all.”
One of Panini Grill and La Stanza’s party menus is called “La Cucina Aperta,” which in Italian means “open kitchen.” The name is fitting: imagine going into a restaurant kitchen with a clean plate, picking here and there buffet-style, and you’ll get a sense of what Macri was after here. For parties of ten or more, Macri will roll out pizza, burrata crostini, an eggplant tower, baked clams, chicken cacciatore, grilled salmon, hanger steak, two pastas, and for good measure, zuppa di cozze, that classic Neapolitan soup of mussels stewed in tomato. If that sounds like a feast, that’s the point.
“Everybody gets to taste something different,” Macri said. “You get the best of both worlds, a little bit of everything. That’s why it’s our most popular menu.”
There’s something inherently festive about eating family-style: passing plates, sharing, and sampling. It’s part of the reason why the communal table has taken off in city restaurants over the past 20 years. By serving larger parties and pulling out all the stops, Macri has been able to infuse Panini Grill with an energy that smaller restaurants just can’t match. It’s an intriguing mix of food and entertainment: the cacio e pepe is always finished tableside, and the party menus include optional add-ons like a champagne wall and gelato bar.
In an era of shrinking menus and small, austere plates, Panini Grill has found success going in the other direction. Macri logs almost 60 hours a week at the restaurant, keeping the weird, wonderful ship afloat. The whole place is a moveable feast: from one dining room to the other, even in the back garden, there is a constant flow of wine and food, waiters carrying platters and wielding corkscrews, and throughout the dinner service there is a liveliness that reminds us why people love going to restaurants. This, in the truest sense, is something you can’t get at home.
538 Forest Avenue 718.981.2999 / paninigrillsi.com