Restaurant review: Panini Opa

G.A. Benton
Lamb Kabob with rice and salad, Fish Gyro and Spanakopita

After recently visiting Panini Opa for the first time, I regretted not dining at the nearly six-year-old establishment earlier and often. Because with its excellent values, pleasant ambience and flavorful, fresh food served in generous portions, Panini Opa has shot to the top of my local Greek restaurant list.

Panini Opa's first name is Italian, but its Greek-ness shines through. This isn't surprising, as the resume of co-owner Orian Trifoni includes two defunct local Greek Corner restaurants as well as the Koble Greek-Italian Grill, a predominantly Greek eatery in Westerville. So, although Italian items are offered, a menu scan quickly reveals that Panini Opa's Italian influences are more prevalent in its decor than its kitchen.

Belying a fast food-style exterior, the restaurant possesses a popular patio amusingly fashioned like an ancient Greek temple — albeit one with a TV screen and “welcome” written in Greek on its pediment.

Inside the comfortable, one-room eatery, you'll find amber lighting, varnished wooden tables, padded chairs, international soccer on TVs, plus souvenir shop-style posters and classical statue knockoffs. You'll also find smiling regulars and a nearly unending stream of takeout orders being assembled.

Everything is simultaneously ordered at the counter, so imbibing newcomers might want to peruse the sizable menu while strolling by the better-than-expected wine selection near the entrance. Wine prices are $5 per glass; the best deals are on Mondays and Tuesdays when bottles are half-priced to $13 for whites and $14 for reds. Mythos Greek beers ($4) and Peroni Italian beers ($4) are also available.

The entire menu is generally well-executed, but it's hard to beat a buttery, dill-scented $3 Spanakopita reheated until the spinach-and-feta pastry is crisp and flaky. The creamy Avgolemono Soup ($4) and the fresh, huge and made-right Greek Salad are other fine choices from the appetizer page. Ditto for the dip sampler ($8), with thick tzatziki, chickpea-forward hummus and — my favorite among these — a spicy feta spread ($6 a la carte).

The Italian-style Meatballs ($8) are likely the heftiest selection from this section — and that's saying something. Four reasonably springy, good-tasting, cheese-fortified orbs arrive in a pool of simple tomato sauce perked up with Romano cheese and chopped fresh tomatoes.

Panini Opa's Gyro ($6) unsurprisingly rises above the norm. The Spicy Gyro ($7), with banana peppers and spicy feta sauce, rises higher still. Rising yet higher for me: the less common Fish Gyro ($7), made like the spicy gyro but starring plenty of flour-dredged, deftly fried red snapper. If only more fish tacos were this good.

A few paninis are offered. The spicy chicken version I tried ($10) was loaded with flavor and comes with a side, such as the enormous lemon potatoes, which are even better with a squirt of lemon.

Speaking of enormous, anyone who can finish the Pastitsio ($11) in one go deserves to be commemorated on the wall like another legendary Greek hero. The lasagna-like tower of comfort food features multiple layers of macaroni, bright tomato sauce and a boatload of tender, well-seasoned ground beef all crowned by a thick and custardy, cheese-enriched, golden-browned bechamel cap.

If that sounds delicious — it is — but you'd prefer cooked-to-sweet slabs of zucchini and eggplant instead of pasta, get the very similar Moussaka ($12).

The massive Lamb Kabobs entree ($15) — four large meat knobs skillfully grilled with huge hunks of sweet, brown-spotted zucchini and peppers — is served with fragrant, loose rice and the restaurant's good Greek salad. Warning: It's so deservedly popular that it sometimes sells out.

The gratifying, made-in-house Almond Cookies — which resemble Mexican wedding cookies — are a bargain-priced sweet at $1 apiece. For something larger, the outside-sourced Limoncello Cake is worth the $3.50 “splurge.”

Panini Opa

4799 Sawmill Rd., Northwest Side