For serious garlic, though, you want to check out the lobster ravioli ($16). The sauce is described as Dijon cream, and may indeed involve some mustard, but it's the garlic that you smell from across the table. No matter, it's an excellent excuse to grab a few of the ravioli, which taste decently of lobster through the cream.
For all the risotto that has worked its way onto North End menus since the "North Italian" trend began, the seafood risotto ($16) was perhaps one of the most satisfying dishes in terms of its varied flavors and textures, including crunchy fresh vegetables and creamy yet slightly al dente rice. One misstep with this risotto, though, and you could end up with something like a 1960s tuna-rice casserole.
A superb piece of salmon ($19) was grilled beautifully, with three layers of flavor: richness, maple glaze, and a little char. But the butternut-squash risotto it came with was sweet and touched up with cinnamon, making the squash taste like candied yams. It won't please everyone. A gnocchi with confit duck special ($18) was also a mixed success. While the dumplings resembled cute pillows and were reasonably light, the cured duck meat, sautéed in a reduction sauce with spinach, still had a lot of salt. It might have worked better as an appetizer.
The wine list is simple and doesn't list vintage years. We had a glass of the house pinot noir ($6) and a glass of the house montepulciano d'Abruzzo ($6). Both were soft and quaffable, and I'm not sure that I could tell them apart in a blind tasting, so they fail the second test of being true to their style. Or perhaps the waiter made a mistake. But I doubt it, because on two visits service was fast, accurate, and positive. Dishes come out of the semi-open kitchen quickly — other than the risotto, which should take more time — and ours came to the table hot and aromatic. There are no desserts. (I'm pretty sure North End zoning laws must prohibit restaurants from selling sweets if they're located within two blocks of Mike's Pastry.)
One wall in this nice, medium-size room is painted brick, with alcoves — and no Italian-restaurant designer can resist a brick alcove, so each of these has a lantern. Others, painted pale yellow, featured a fine collection of multi-colored plates centered on a cute coffee-pot clock, plus a smaller collection of red-ware plates and some rustic pitchforks, oven peels, and giant spoons. Overall, the room is large enough to keep the staff out of conversations, but small enough that it doesn't get too loud. Hard bop, which never died in the boot, plays in the background.
One of the best things about Panza is that it hasn't been discovered yet, so you can usually get a table while other places have lines out the door. Sadly, the Phoenix is about to ruin that.