Eating on the Fly: Hillsborough, N.C.

This small town is home to nationally acclaimed treasures

Panciuto’s chef, Aaron Vandemark, has been nominated by the James Beard Foundation for Best Chef in the Southeast for three consecutive years.

The Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area has such an impressive farm-to-table food scene that I am not exactly sure where to start. Everything I eat here is absolutely scrumptious. So I think I’ll just start with Hillsborough, which is a small town nestled just outside of the Triangle region of North Carolina, about 45 minutes away from Raleigh. Hillsborough was the former capital of North Carolina. At present day, the surrounding area is primarily farmland, which is a plentiful supplier to local restaurants and the farm-to-table movement. 

Churton Street is the main drag in Hillsborough, and it is lined with small specialty shops, art galleries, bars, and restaurants. So let’s start with wine, shall we? My friend and I visited Hillsborough Wine Company, which hosts a "wine machine."  For a very reasonable price, you can purchase a debit card, of sorts, that fits into the machine and allows you to sample a taste, a half glass, or a full glass for varying costs. Next, we stumbled into Matthew’s Chocolates, a local artisan chocolate shop with distinctive flavors such as spicy Thai peanut chocolates and cardamom truffles.

The real star of Hillsborough is the locally grown food. A friend of a friend, Aaron Vandemark, owns Panciuto, an Italian and American Southern fusion restaurant in Hillsborough. In this little town that is off the beaten path, someone discovered Vandemark's restaurant, tasted his menu, and lo and behold, Panciuto earned a James Beard nomination for Best Chef Southeast for three consecutive years. The Italian translation of Panciuto is "potbellied," which is indeed how I felt after filling my own belly with the remarkable menu selections Panciuto had to offer. 

Panciuto presented many unique and tastefully prepared dishes. The menu changes by the day, based on fresh local availability. The top of the menu stated "94% of tonight’s menu is sourced from neighboring farms and providers."  We were greeted with a glass of prosecco and a warm, friendly hello. To start, we tried the cheese board: smoked farmers’ cheese with hot pepper jelly, Hickory Grove with honey, Carolina Moon with banana butter, New Moon with grapefruit marmalade, fried goat cheese with persimmon preserves, pickled green tomatoes, pickled sunchokes, prosciutto, bresaola, and coppa. The stand-out was by far the fried goat cheese with persimmon preserves. It simply melted in my mouth. And the unique flavor of the banana butter was exquisite. For cocktails I tried the Carolina Zip: North Carolina cardinal gin, ginger ale, Galliano, and muddled lemon.

For an entrée I chose the fried barbecued pig ears, sunny egg, and sorrel, served with ricotta gnocchi, cream, balsamic, and pickled onions. My dining companion had braised beef shortribs with potato-asiago ravioli, spinach, vincotto, and green garlic butter, topped with breadcrumbs. Vandemark also brought us a grilled heritage pork chop, served with baked garganelli and pimento cheese, over wilted spinach.

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I simply don’t know how on earth we had room for dessert after the delicious array of cuisine that had just given us each a "potbelly," but we managed. I told my friend he would have to do the heavy lifting with the dessert, but I would indeed be in for a taste. We chose the peanut butter polenta cake with malted milk ice cream, warm chocolate, and crushed chocolate biscotti. I think I heard angels singing in the background when I bit into it. Panciuto and its local suppliers did not disappoint my palate. Hillsborough is well worth the drive for a taste of some of North Carolina’s freshest cuisine.